Loudness (ラウドネス): Thunder In The East (1985)

“Can I get some nachos, please?”

Konjo-san, the owner, smiled. “Coming right up.”

Thunder In The East album art, Japanese edition.

I’d been in Takamatsu City, just off the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, for about three weeks, and the remaining 11 months and one week stretched out before me like a childhood dream come true.

But childhood dream or not, I was craving Mexican food. Having basically grown up in and around Austin, I was used to Tex-Mex 24/7. For the past three weeks I’d indulged in every kind of sushi and seafood I could get my hands on, some of it so fresh that it wiggled out of my hands at the supermarket, causing me to cry out in surprise. Causing no fewer than half dozen supermarket workers to rush over and see what was wrong. Causing no fewer than half dozen supermarket workers to shake their heads in disbelief, muttering at the foolishness of the clumsy gaijin.

Ruff House Bar, Takamatsu City, Shikoku, Japan. Ask for Konjo-san, the owner.

I looked around at the tiny establishment. Ruff House Bar was basically fifty feet away from where I worked, and was very popular among the gaijin. Famous for its ‘open mic’ nights, the place would fill up very quickly on any given night of the week. Of course, it only held about 30 people before the fire marshal had to be called in. Located downstairs from street level, there was an actual tree growing through the bar and into the street above. I was wondering how they’d managed to build the place while preserving the tree when Konjo-san showed up with my nachos.

I thanked him profusely in my ragged Japanese and looked down. I tried to hide my disappointment as I handed him his five dollars. Doritos. In a cup. With a slice of American cheese melted over it. In the microwave. And Pace picante sauce.

Oh well, I thought. You don’t go to Japan to eat nachos.

You go to Japan to eat incredible sushi. You go to Japan to play at Konjo-san’s open mic nights. You go to Japan to have Konjo-san applaud your efforts, only to join you at the mic and proceed to blow you away with his amazing lead guitar technique.

And on Friday nights, in Takamatsu, you go to Japan to hear Konjo-san crank up Loudness’ “Crazy Nights” so loud that you can hear it a block away.

From L to R: Konjo-san, owner of Ruff House Bar; two gaijin Loudness fans; and Koji-san, owner of Hariraya Tea House, across the street, and childhood friend of Konjo-san’s.

“It’s Japan’s Heavy Metal National Anthem,” Konjo-san proudly told me, clearly relishing my look of delight. “It took the world by storm.”

“I know,” I replied. “I loved Thunder In The East right away when it came out, but I never got into anything after that first album.”

“That wasn’t their first album,” he told me with a bit of a pious grin. “It was their FIFTH!”

I was clearly out of my depth, and I knew it. I decided to swallow what was left of my pride.

“So what do you like about this album?” I asked.

“Let me break it down for you,” he said, reaching down beneath the bar to start the cd at the beginning again.

Konjo-san Breaks It Down

1) Crazy Nights: First off, the opening guitar riff pretty much epitomizes the “scooped mids” guitar tone that defined the early- to mid-80’s metal scene, even internationally. Akira Takasaki (高崎 晃) plays flashy but solid guitar throughout the album. And right away, you English-speakers get to hear Minoru Niihara (二井原 実) singing in English. Kinda like Sukiyaki Western Django. Anthemic, heavy opening. Lots of chanting “hey!”, and the solo… oh my god… Starts off with some sweet bends, then into some sweet 8-finger tapping. Takasaki tears it up. Drums and bass are locked in tight. Outro solo has whammy madness and double-stops galore. He’s fluid, fast, and ferocious.

2) Like Hell: Drummer Munetaka Higuchi (樋口 宗孝) and bassist Masayoshi Yamashita (山下 昌良) join Takasaki on the opening of this one. Heavy, bright, and melodic, again with the entire band chanting the chorus, “Like Hell”. Typical cheesy 80’s lyrics (I’m gonna rock you Like Hell!), but you knew that when you bought the album. And that’s why you still love it today.

3) Heavy Chains: Nice clean opening with dirty, bluesy lead over it for the intro. Then vocals come in… kind of power-ballad-ey. Super kick-ass vocals. Then a heavy galloping rhythm (think Maiden) comes in, with screaming leads… a bit reminiscent of Mercyful Fate… but the lead flourishes are a lot tighter and more complex than just simple, throw-away pentatonic blues scale stuff. Nice break down in the middle before the rhythm changes to a slow heavy thing, then back to double-time for the solo section. Beautiful build, with a lot of Yngwie-style lead stuff. Then a beautiful screaming dive, and back to the galloping rhythm. Gorgeous.

4) Get Away: One of the most up-tempo songs on the album. “Don’t look back, run for cover. Save yourself, save your lover. Overkill, undercover. Kick and scream at midnight.” Well, okay. Again, we knew what we were signing up for, and Loudness doesn’t disappoint. Personally, this was always one of the low spots on the album for me, but I always looked forward to it because after it comes…

Loudness was a featured band at this concert in Houston, Texas, USA. “Of note was drummer Munetaka Higuchi’s penchant for throwing a drumstick 30 feet in the air above him throughout the show. The band would be playing and suddenly you’d see a drumstick go spinning up into the sky, arcing over toward one side or the other. He must have gone through 50 drumsticks that night.” — a Black Wax Reviewer

5) We Could Be Together: From the opening pick slide to the crashing drum intro to the blindingly-quick guitar licks that Takasaki-san throws in the spaces (???) between the rhythm lines to the super-anthemic chorus, this song is pretty much the perfect 80’s metal power ballad. Heavy and fast while still melodic, this song has got it all. Intro to the guitar solo is amazing… like a separate song unto itself… then into the solo proper. Nice vibrato… then some quick tapping stuff, then ascending arpeggio stuff that’s too quick to follow. Song closes with yet ANOTHER anthemic chorus, chanted/sung by the entire band: “I’ve got your real love, baby…” Okay, it sounds better than it looks on paper.

6) Run For Your Life: This one starts with some cool synth thing, setting up a simple, but moody 4/4 feel. Then everybody else comes crashing in, briefly joining the synth groove. Then comes a sweet 9/4 guitar groove that HAD to have been an influence on Marty Friedman when he wrote “Lucretia”. Then we’re in 3/4 for a brief respite… clean and ballad-ey… the calm before the storm. Then heavy, but still slow. Building, then suddenly we’re into a double-time section once again characterized by that muted melody picking that we all love so much. Through the cycle again, through the 2nd chorus, and then 7/8 alternates with 8/8 for a pretty sweet proggy-sounding solo section. Lots of echo and reverb on this. Then back to 4/4 whammy-bar madness and out.

7) Clockwork Toy: We can taste old Van Halen influences (first two albums) here a bit in the beginning… Then we’re off and running. Another super up-tempo rocker. Double bass mania. Excellent vocal range. Sweet chorus. Nice slow-down section, kind of Megadeth-ey in its halftime feel. Solo sounds like Alcatrazz-era Yngwie, or even more like Uli Roth’s earlier stuff. Very sweet.

8) No Way Out: If any of the songs sound like they belong on a different album, it’s this one. Actually sounds more like a B.O.C. song being covered by a Japanese metal band. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Almost a little S.R.V. feel in there, in the beginning, with just a shade more distortion. Pretty bluesy, at first. The melody line for the bridge is most intriguing: “Screaming, I shout: There’s no way out!” fa, mi, (up to) DO, sol. Whoa. Not exactly the smoothest, but certainly something that’s hard to forget. Which is good. I think. Then onto a really sweet-sounding chorus. Solo starts with a very basic melody line, then repeats. Then, goes into a frenzy of flailing fingers. Arpeggios and modal runs galore. Very Vai. Pushing Satriani. Rumor has it he loved Blackmore, as well.

9) The Lines Are Down: Another fast one, with breakneck speed gallop-picking. Chord progression is pretty simple on this one: vi-V-vi-V-vi-V for the verses… but that’s okay. The heavy drums really help to round things out. It’s not the best song on the album, but it does incorporate one of the most blatant Eddie Van Halen-isms at the 1:19 mark. Which, once again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not my favorite song on the album, but just as Get Away played the perfect foil to We Could Be Together, this song serves as the perfect preface for…

10) Never Change Your Mind: The style of the opening finger picked guitar part reminds me of the beginning of Dio’s Last In Line. Maybe a little quicker, but the basic feel is there. Then on to some very (!) bluesy licks. (To show that he can?) Still, it works. When this song comes on, you may as well pull out both Bic lighters and start slowly waving your arms above your head, from side to side. Because that’s exactly what this song is about. It pretends to get quicker toward the middle, but it’s just a ploy. We get the breakdown and some cool Who-influenced bass riffage just before the solo. Which is almost slow enough to sing. Then a very pretty outro solo, with guitar trading licks with vocals. All in all, a feelgood closing tune.

Arigato gozaimasu, Konjo-san!

Black Wax Reviews Rating: Ten Stars out of Eleven. Practically perfect.

Mercyful Fate: Melissa (1983)

In 1983, Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” was dangerous.

Riding in the back of the school bus to gym class on a steamy April morning in a little backwater town (population 5,000) about an hour outside Austin (before SXSW, before the overpass, before “an hour outside Austin” meant “the suburbs of Austin”), turning up the portable cassette player and blasting this song would definitely raise eyebrows among the preps, the FFA kids, and the jocks. Reinforcing the fact that we were misfits. Outcasts.

Some of us attempted to straddle both worlds, running track, participating in drama, and wearing multiple alligator shirts with parachute pants, but also wearing heavy metal concert jerseys as often as possible. Others of us were summarily (and unfairly) judged as burnouts and losers on the path to destruction. Hearing us blast “Crazy Train” only cemented these beliefs in the heads and hearts of the coaches, school counselors, and bus drivers who watched us in the oversized rearview mirror, shaking their heads. “He ain’t worth pissin’ on.*” Somehow, that gave us a sense of power. We were flying our freak flag high, to borrow from the hippies with their ‘stones tongue’ tshirts, bell bottoms and bad haircuts. (*Actual quote from a highly respected school official at the time, speaking to members of the local high school football team in reference to a future Black Wax Reviews staff member who happened to be walking by.)

Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” felt like outright blasphemy for those of us raised Catholic… for those of us who, against all odds, still tried to have some faith in that system. But we’d seen badness. Divorce. (Resulting in excommunication from the church.) Abused mothers. Booze. Some stepdads who were cool; others who were not. In many ways, the ground beneath our feet felt like it was crumbling. Defying an omniscient, omnipotent being in the sky with a long white beard to strike us down for listening to Maiden felt empowering somehow.

Others felt the power, too.

The first time I popped in my “Mob Rules” cassette while riding around in my preppie friend’s little yellow Datsun pickup, he looked at me with confusion in his eyes. “It’s so HEAVY!”, he yelled over “Turn Up The Night,” not quite sure whether he liked it or not. I reveled in that moment for months.

If we were giddy with joy over the power of these bands, you can imagine our profound astonishment upon discovering Mercyful Fate’s Melissa. Here was a band that took things two steps further. They didn’t just use heavy distortion. They didn’t stop at making indirect references to beezlebub. Nope. They stuck it right in everyone’s face, and proudly, too. “Hail Satan,” King Diamond screamed, and I was simultaneously terrified and excited. If ever there was the power to make people step back, this was it, I thought.

I still remember popping the cassette into my cutting-edge technology, high-fidelity, portable cassette stereo.

Side One

Evil. Machine gun blasts of heavy guitar open the album, followed by some harmony guitar stuff. Then King Diamond (Kim Bendix Petersen, degree in chemistry) comes in with what was to become his signature falsetto scream. The sound of the drums. The bass. The mid-rangey, nasal tonal quality of the overall album. The creepy photos… obscured faces… who WERE these guys? We didn’t know. But we knew that they were blasting us out of our chairs. “Evil” was a kick in the chest in every way for me. I wasn’t sure whether to rip the tape out of the player and throw it away, or rewind and play it again louder. I opted for the latter.

Curse of the Pharaohs. More laid-back opening, guitar, with drums kicking in not long after. Then vocals. Some serious gallop-picking, which Maiden was also making very popular, but at the time sounded new and fresh. Crazy guitar solos… spiky, fast, and spooky-sounding. (Years later I would learn that those were actual scales that even normal guys like me could play, with a little practice.)

Into the Coven. Oh yeah… that sweet intro, all majored-out, like the intro to Metallica’s “Fight Fire With Fire” on Ride the Lightning. Very classically inspired. And maybe even a little bluesy, with that bend toward the end… then the main theme kicks in, and things are not so happy anymore. Dang. Even 29 years later, this is heavy. Even though I still can’t really understand the lyrics without the benefit of the googles, it kind of doesn’t matter. I still just fake it and sing along with my fake, made-up words. Then the sweet, laid-back breakdown at 2:32. King Diamond’s harmonizing with himself, then the razor-sharp solo. Second solo. Harmony solo. Fourth solo. These guys knew how to put together a really heavy song! Then back to the main theme. And another solo. I stood in front of the bedroom mirror for hours rocking the tennis racket. And in my pre-pubescence, I really felt like I was rocking those falsetto vocals rather well.

At the Sound of the Demon Bell. Cool beginning. Lots of double stops. Kind of an uplifting chord progression to begin with, from I to IV. Then, when the vocals kick in, sheer evil. Of course. And holy mother of god, those chorus vocals were so sweet. And then the time signature change. “If you don’t believe, then see for yourself…”

Early Mercyful Fate: Michael Denner, Timi Hansen, King Diamond, Hank Shermann and Ole Frausing.

At this point in the song (1:52), it becomes my duty as an Official Black Wax Reviewer to point out the direct and unabashed ripoff from Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat” (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). Okay, maybe “ripoff” is a bit melodramatic and overly harsh. But without a doubt, this section had to have been “strongly influenced by” Sabbath’s tune. I mean, come on. (Still, if you’re gonna be “strongly influenced” by anything, Sabbath’s not a bad bet.) Thundering double bass and crazy soloing. More time signature changes. These guys never quite cross into ‘prog rock’ territory… no 5’s or 7’s or anything like that… just the occasional switch from 4 to 3. Still very effective. At 4:57 we get a certifiably kick ass change into the closing section, where we shift from full-throttle, balls out cranking to a laid-back, spacious groove. Then back again. Wait. I lied. If we include the extra little repeat thing in there, we can call that 5/4 (or 10/4). Then the final gallop home for the last three seconds. Pure bliss.

Side Two

Black Funeral. So this one was the source of many jokes among our friends… “Bring the black box to the altar…” “Then set the black box down on the altar…” “Reach down and unlatch the lock on the black box on the altar…” “Lift the lid…” okay, you get the point. Over-the-top lyrics. But then at 0:41, with King’s falsetto vocals at the beginning of the chorus, we could never help ourselves. We had to sing along. Absolutely kick-ass changes; the arrangement is really genius. Each part is built on a really solid riff. Even if the vocals kind of border on the silly from time to time (through my eyes/ears today). Then crazy soloing and a sudden ending that makes me feel like I’ve just driven off a bumpy gravel road and over a cliff.

Satan’s Fall. From the opening drums/guitar solo to King’s frantic vocal phrasing, this song is just an explosion of energy. Slows down at 0:48 for a stoner rock groove punctuated by King’s upper-register screams (he hits at least a G7, for you fellow keyboard geeks) then right down to a guttural “with blood-stained wings”. And right back up to where he was three seconds ago. If he made a deal with some evil entity, like cashing in his soul for vocal prowess and fame, I’d say he did pretty good. (Well, until he dies, anyway.) Gorgeous wall of vocal harmonies at 5:28. They’re all King, and man, does it sound good. At 5:52, we walk through a doorway into what sounds like a whole different song. Heavy groove punctuated by crunchy muted guitar strokes that slowly take us through the paces of yet another creepy chord progression. A fantastic contrast to the pelting hailstorm we’ve been subjected to thus far. A nice aural break, of sorts, with groaning bass in the background making things creepy as ever. You know that scene in your favorite slasher movie, where things are quiet and you know the evil dude with the hockey mask and the chainsaw is right behind that tree over there, but the cute girl in the high heels and the ripped prom dress doesn’t know it, and is slowly stumbling through the woods right toward his hiding place? That’s what this sounds like.

Oh, and the classic and oh-so-subtle lyrics,

“Craniums high on stakes

Swedish band Ghost are heavily influenced by Mercyful Fate and Blue Oyster Cult. Could we ask for anything more?

It’s Satan’s epigraph
Something you can’t erase… 666
They call him the beast”

One of the coolest parts of this song is at 7:52, when it ends. Or so we think. After an apparent ending (crashing cymbals, definitive closing chords), we get a moment of complete silence. “Oh, the song is over.” Then clean guitar, nice and sweet, with the vocals, “Innocent lovers, it’s a lie.” For better or worse, the dude really knows how to construct a chord with his multi-tracked vocals. Very sweet. Then the fast part. Then the crazy solos. Finally, around 11:25, things wind down and die. And it’s time for their coup de grace…

Melissa. Beautiful opening guitar part. (Factoid: I learned how to play this opening rhythm part and wrote my own lyrics to it; a cheesy love song. Then played it for girls in college and told them it was about them. Didn’t actually gain me anything, but I tried.)  Awesome, creepy vocals. Drums. Nice and slow; half-time feel. Then, at 2:12, things get heavier, but not faster. Not yet. Vocals die out… quiet, then clean guitars come in with a 3/4 time signature. Solos over vocals. Back to the initial 4/4 theme. And into the galloping thing, the amazing hi-hat work and ride cymbal bell. Slows down again. Like way down. Solo. ‘Leave for a cup of tea and come back’ slow. ‘The hell were they thinking?’ slow. And for quite awhile, too. Some cool drum fills in there, though. Bass playing way up high on the neck. Then the best, most delicious outro ever… back to the 3/4 part, desperate vocals (“Melissa? Can you hear me? Melissa? Are you there?”) Then clean guitar with vocals for the final drop of the curtains.

“I think Melissa’s still with us…”

While the Black Wax Reviews team is divided on the lyrical content (some of us love it, others of us aren’t really into it), we all agree this is about as close to the perfect metal album as you can get. It was true back in ’83 and it’s still true today.

Rating: 10.5 stars out of 11. An almost-perfect record. (Minus 1/2 point, just in case there IS a God.)

Divided over The Dan (part one): Countdown To Ecstasy vs The Royal Scam

It would seem that there’s some dissention in the ranks here at Black Wax Reviews.

While we’re generally a pretty peaceful species, trying to determine the best ever Steely Dan album has brought our staff to the brink of fisticuffs. (Talk about your politics and religion all you want; we’re all about acceptance. But favorite album by The Dan; them’s fightin’ words.)

So in our attempt to be fair and indifferent (heh), we’re going to break it down and let you, our Dear Readers, decide.

Steely Dan BCE (Before Common Era): To include all albums from Can’t Buy A Thrill to Gaucho.

A solid 50% of our team stands behind Countdown To Ecstasy,

Countdown To Ecstasy

while the other half lauds The Royal Scam as Steely Dan’s best BCE recording.

The Royal Scam

Two Against Nature

Everything Must Go

Steely Dan CE (Common Era): To include all albums after The Absence (1981-1993); that is, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go.

Again, we’re split right down the middle. One half of the team shouts “Two Against Nature”, while the other half stands there looking down at their shoes, shaking their heads with a condescending, wry smile on their collective face, muttering “Everything Must Go” repeatedly.

Rather than leave the outcomes of such critical issues up to mere human emotion, we decided to find out, once and for all, the answers to these mysteries that have plagued humanity for millennia. We took the time and energy to input our raw data directly to our Computer System (which boasts a pretty glamorous baud rate) and relied on pure logic for our answers.

We wrote a little code (no big deal) and programmed our Computer System to compare, side-by-side, the first songs from Countdown To Ecstasy and The Royal Scam; then the second songs; then the third songs, and so on; utilizing a highly-complex Eleven Star Rating System in order to determine which song was statistically superior and mathematically more enjoyable.

The results were nothing short of astonishing.

Countdown To Ecstasy vs The Royal Scam

Purportedly significant. Statistically moribund.

Song One: Bodhisattva vs Kid Charlemagne… This one was highly predictable; Kid Charlemagne is the superior song for a couple reasons… First, Bodhisattva is overplayed. And while it does score points for starting the song with a rest (the first beat we hear is actually the ‘and’ of ‘one’), Kid Charlemagne’s incredible guitar solo outweighs the coolness of Bodhisattva. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for The Royal Scam.

Song Two: Razor Boy vs Caves of Altamira… Razor Boy wins this one, not only for being mathematically more listenable, but also for successfully blending slide guitar twang with jazzy vibes and hippie angst at the realization of mortality. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for Countdown To Ecstasy.

Song Three: Boston Rag vs Don’t Take Me Alive… TIE! While Boston Rag is one of the most celebrated pieces of recorded sound known to humanity (so catchy, so poignant), Don’t Take Me Alive starts with with of the most majestically magnificent pieces of guitar work (by none other than Mister 335, Larry Carlton Himself) ever to grace the spectrum of humanly perceptible sound. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for each album.

Song Four: Your Gold Teeth vs Sign In Stranger… Sign In Stranger is the superior song. Our computer readout cites “cooler storyline” and “sweet piano thing” as deciding factors. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for The Royal Scam.

Song Five: Show Biz Kids vs The Fez… Show Biz Kids is inherently better for its inclusion of a highly contentious word popularly used as an insult or as part of a threat in the parlance of our times. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for Countdown To Ecstasy.

Song Six: My Old School vs Green Earrings… Green Earrings is qualitatively better. Even though My Old School talks about Guadalajara, Mexico, in the end, the line “Greek medallion sparkles when you smile” tipped the computer’s scales in favor of this late-70’s ode to love. Or to women of a certain dental persuasion, anyway. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for The Royal Scam.

What Walt wants, Walt gets.

Song Seven: Pearl of The Quarter vs Haitian Divorce… While Haitian Divorce would seem to be the obvious choice based on the talk box thing alone, our trusty Computer System cited Pearl of The Quarter as being more mathematically enjoyable for its inclusion of the following lyrical content: “voulez-voulez-voulez vouz”. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for Countdown To Ecstasy.

Song Eight: King of The World vs Everything You Did… Everything You Did is the stronger, more enjoyable, and highly more listenable song. Our computer readout cites such deciding factors as inclusion of the words “roller skater” as well as the whole Eagles reference thing. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for The Royal Scam.

Song Nine: (No ‘song nine’ on Countdown To Ecstasy) vs The Royal Scam… The Royal Scam is superior by default, since Countdown To Ecstasy only features eight songs. Also, The Royal Scam happens to be the best song from the album of the same title. Our technologically-advanced Computer System awarded extra bonus points for being so haunting, both lyrically and melodically, and cited rich harmonic structure as a key factor in its determination as superior. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One point for The Royal Scam.

ADDITIONAL STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT VARIABLES

Countdown To Ecstasy only featured three kick-ass guitarists (Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Rick Derringer), while The Royal Scam featured five (Walter Becker, Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, Dean Parks, Elliot Randall). STATISTICAL OUTCOME: Two extra points for Royal Scam (one per extra kick-ass guitarist).

Inclusion of vibraphone — Countdown To Ecstasy features vibraphone on Razor Boy. No vibraphone is to be found anywhere on The Royal Scam. STATISTICAL OUTCOME: One extra point for Countdown To Ecstasy.

MATHEMATICAL RESULTS

Steely Dan rely only upon the finest state-of-the-art equipment for capturing the magics in their musics.

After months of processing time and countless reels of tape, our highly refined Computer System has determined that, logically speaking, and based purely on fact, The Royal Scam is the superior Steely Dan album in comparison to its inferior predecessor, Countdown To Ecstasy. The Royal Scam’s total of eight (8) Cool Points, in stark contrast to Countdown To Ecstasy’s mere five (5) successfully proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Steely Dan’s 1976 effort is logically and morally superior to their 1974 output.

We at Black Wax Reviews hope that this is helpful in furthering current research in the field, and applaud the efforts of all programmers, hackers, and hacks involved.

What say you, Fellow Dan Fan? Weigh in with your comments below.

Special thanks to our readers

Hey Black Wax Reviews Reader,

Queensryche, circa early '80's.

We know you… You are our brothers and sisters…

Before there was an internet you’d catch a ride with whomever to the nearest bigger town or city. You’d flip through thousands… TENS of thousands of albums and buy the ones with the coolest covers… no chance to preview them on amazon. The only amazon was the jungle. There was no ‘dot com’ to run to. And if you lived in a town small enough, you went to the hardware store, where they’d special order LPs for you. But you had to be careful… you could order Highway To Hell and easily end up with Powerage. They didn’t know the difference. We were putting our hard-earned cash on the counter and hoping for the best. Lots of times, we got burned. Dropped the needle only to find we hated what we heard. Or that it was initially only tolerable, but grew on us over time.

But there were the winners, too. The ones we fell in love with. Ride the Lightning. Master of Puppets on cassette two weeks after it was released. Grim Reaper’s first album. Armored Saint’s ep. Queensryche’s ep. Great White’s first album. (Remember? Before the rockabilly thing?) These days, when someone says they only like ‘old Scorpions’, and we ask what that means for them, we smile a little bit when they say ‘Love At First Sting’ or anything later. Give us Lovedrive. Animal Magnetism. Blackout. (And some of us are so hardcore that only Lonesome Crow will do.)

We remember our first rock concert. Some of us traveled for hours in the back of a pickup truck on a Sunday night to see it. Some of us had our first encounter with second-hand smoke at that concert. (On the way home, excitedly talking about what we’d remember as one of the best shows of our lives, one of my friends asked, “Hey man… do you have a buzz?” Started laughing at me when I reached up to feel my head. “No… what are you talking about?” Young and innocent, all it took for me to have my world rocked was breathing the air in the arena.) And for some of us, that band became gigantic. Or not.

For me it was Maiden. July 24, 1983. A trip to a certain big city (rhymes with “Houston”) in the back of a pickup. Granted, it had a topper. Fastway opened. Then Saxon. Then Maiden. In the weeks leading up to the concert, I sold all my 8-tracks and my portable 8-track player for cash to take to the concert. Once I got in the door of the Houston Coliseum, bought all three concert jerseys available. Put them all on right away, before they could get stolen.

They went over my Number Of The Beast t-shirt. I’d taken that shirt to the local printing shop and had them put “Maiden Rules” on the back, in all caps, in red iron-on letters. An hour earlier, while standing in line, some Older Guys had admired my shirt. “Hey, that’s pretty cool! Why don’t you give it to me!” As I stood there dumbstruck, my friend and fellow Black Wax Reviewer diffused the situation cooly… “Ha ha… that’s pretty funny, man…” I’m still grateful for that one.

Brain damage in Tejas...

Saved the ticket stub forever. Until i lost it. Kept the shirts forever. Until I threw them out in a fit of ‘maturity’. (Those very shirts are now worth hundreds of dollars on e-bay). Maybe like us, you saw the same band(s) multiple times. In different states. Maybe even in different territories or countries. Some shows were better than others. But even after all these years, these experiences are dear to our hearts.

For some of you, I’m describing a dad, mom, step-parent, uncle, or twisted older brother or sister. For some of you, the internet delivered your first taste of your beloved bands.

That’s totally cool.

Whatever path we take, the destination is the same; our undying passion for music. Honestly, at the end of the day, we don’t even mind what kind of music it is that you love — if you’re passionate about music, like we are, then you have our respect.

Photo courtesy of G.

What was your first rock concert? Which albums did you buy with fingers crossed? Which ones ended up standing the test of time? Which ones didn’t? What was your best concert experience? What was your worst?

We’d love to hear from you. Just add your comments down below, if and when you feel like it.

And thanks for stopping by. You rule.

Horns To You,
Black Wax Reviews

Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (1976)

Four years old.

Standing with my face pressed against the front of the jukebox at Jerry’s Pizza King, outside Tampa. Chaser lights flashing. Music blasting. If I reached with all my might, I could almost touch the selector buttons. “Do It Again” at full volume. I heard that song so many times that I assumed every other child was listening to the same thing in their heads. (Two years later, it would be Side One of Apostrophe that my tender little mind and heart would be absorbing through osmosis and repetition.)

College. Austin, Texas. Sun Harvest Farms, hawking produce. Muzak. “Hey Nineteen”. “Peg”. “Babylon Sister”. My psyche’s hazy aural backdrop. I should find out who this is and get some. On compact digital chromium oxide cassette.

And pretty soon, it’s all I’m listening to. Again. But this time, by my own choice. Wait. Never mind. I have no choice. It’s the only thing that consistently soothes me.

Orlando. Indianapolis. Puerto Rico (“the city of St. John…”). Back to CONUS. Japan. Years fly by. Circumstances change. But The Dan is always there, playing in the background. Even put out some new stuff. (Most of which I love.) But the classic soundtrack remains.

Fast forward to present day. Back to vinyl. Digging in to the meat of things. Who played on what. Reviews. Interviews. And best of all, instant access to direct quotes from Don and Walt themselves. DVDs revealing ‘behind the scenes’ of tracking sessions. Mixdown sessions. How many lead guitar breaks were considered for that song. Who said what. Who propped up a cardboard sign in front of his drumset. A doorway into a dreamworld.

But those doors never take me as far through those inner hallways as the music itself. They might show me a little more of Don and Walt. But as it turns out, that was never what I was searching for. As it turns out, I was searching for more insight into my own self. And somehow the music is the mirror.

“Arch pop ditties.” The inner sleeve notes on Aja are hysterical. Suitable for framing. And give some real insight into the genius of these two guys. There. I said it. I guess by now, Gentle Reader, you’ve figured out that the Black Wax team strongly approves of the musical pursuits of Steely Dan.

I downloaded the Internet and found that The Wikipedia has this to say about The Royal Scam: “The album was not as highly rated upon its release as its predecessors with most reviewers noting that it did not seem to represent any musical advancement.” Of course, hindsight is 20/20. The Royal Scam is a work of art, and as such, is celebrated on turntables from Topanga to Watts. Brooklyn, even.

Side one

  1. Kid Charlemagne” – 4:38
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonThe Wikipedia tells us it’s a song about Bear. Upbeat. Cryptic. When I was eight years old and the bicentennial stickers were at eye-level on the glass doors of every convenience store, the funny pants, the crazy moustaches and all other accoutrements (sights, sounds, smells) of the era were like water to the fish: so normal, common and accepted as to be seemingly invisible. More than 35 years later, the lyrics elicit a smile and vague memories of a wild time. Sorry I was only a kid and missed it, but it’s probably a good thing I was only a kid and missed it. A sad and wiser man, all the same.
  2. “The Caves of Altamira” – 3:33[7]

    Larry Carlton. Mister 335. Hero.

    Tenor saxophone solo by John KlemmerIs that hope I hear in the chord progression?

    My friend Wiki says, “The lyrics, written in first person on the theme of art, follow in typically abstruse fashion the story of a young boy who would avoid society by entering a cave and admiring cave paintings on its walls.”So, art as escape… the cave of the psyche… make up your own.

  3. “Don’t Take Me Alive” – 4:16
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonHere’s a little gem I found at
    http://www.guitaretab.com/s/steely-dan/18296.html :

    • Date: Mon, 2 Oct 1995 20:31:44 -0300
      From: Bruce & Peggy Mackinnon
      Subject: s/steely_dan/don't_take_me_alive.crd
      INTRO:
      First slowly strum out a G7#9 with this shape: EADGBE
                                                     355466
      This may look like an impossibility, like a cruel, unusual and
      unplayable chord, but it can be done. You must use the power
      of the force. First you use your ring (3rd) finger to cover
      BOTH the 4th and 5th strings on the 5th fret (straight down on
      the fingertip, not barred), and next you  use the baby finger to
      barre both the 1st and 2nd strings on the 6th fret. Of course your
      index finger is on the 6th string, 3rd fret, and your middle
      finger is on the 3rd string, 4th fret.

      Thank you, dear friends, for shining a light on that godforsaken first chord. Like the opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night“, it wakes many of us guitarists from our peaceful slumber. Killing dreams. Crushing souls. Well, mine anyway.

  4. “Sign in Stranger” – 4:23
    Piano Solo by Paul GriffinGuitar Solo by Elliott RandallStories of the seedy underworld. Like most Dan songs. I can almost see these cretins standing in line, queueing up politely as they can. Slowly winding back and forth through the little rope barriers, quietly working their way toward the Glass Booth. Lady behind the glass sitting there with a bored look as one after another shuffles up, pushes giant wads of cash through the slot and fills out the application to make those mugshots disappear. But even the tempo and erratic piano solo suggest a looser, more laid-back, under-the-table approach to things. Maybe a bit more informal than signs with arrows and “for service ring bell”. To each our own, right?

    The Dan in 1970

  5. “The Fez” (Becker, Fagen, Paul Griffin) – 4:01
    Guitar solo by Walter BeckerIt would be decades before I’d learn that they weren’t talking about the guys with the go carts. The tradeoff for losing innocence is finally being in on the joke. Bittersweet. But worth it, I think, in the end.

Side two

  1. “Green Earrings” – 4:05
    Guitar solos by Denny Dias (1st) and Elliott Randall(2nd)I can see her. The dental work. The way she pushes her hair back behind her ear without even being aware of it.
  2. “Haitian Divorce” – 5:51
    Talk box guitar solo by Dean Parks, altered by Walter BeckerHopelessly in love with the way “soon everybody knew the thing was dead” happens before we’re even through with Verse One. Ever been divorced? New York City’s tie with sunny islands / foreshadowing for the end of the album is happening here in spades. I could make up something here about intertwining story lines and hypothetical spectres. Best if I just stick to personal opinion. I like it.

    Modern-day Dan.

  3. Everything You Did” – 3:55
    Guitar solo by Larry CarltonThis is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful house.
  4. The Royal Scam” – 6:30
    Guitar solo by Larry Carlton
    Quite possibly one of the greatest Dan songs of all time. Cold. Calculated. Brooding. The lyrics are pure poetry. Contrast. Bright colors against shades of gray. The American Dream. The lies we tell to keep it alive, even as we’re being plowed under.The percussion work is brilliant. Actually, it feels rather pointless to say that any aspect of the music is brilliant or amazing, since all of it is. “That wave is so WET!” Okay. Whatever.Still. The crazy, subtle hand percussion that happens at the very beginning of the song, behind the piano (the tapping, clicking, whatever it is) really adds to the spookiness. The darkness. And this is truly the perfect song to summarize the entire album. The seventies. The American Dream.

    Call me a jaded cynic. Call me what you will. Steely Dan for President.

    RATING: 11 Stars out of 11. The Perfect Album in every way.

    EPILOGUE: Lots of love for Mister Whatever on the Webs. For starters, go here: http://www.steelydandictionary.com/

Blue Oyster Cult: Fire Of Unknown Origin (1981)

Before starting this piece, I made the mistake of reading other peoples’ reviews of this classic album, a practice I’ve entirely avoided to date.

It almost ruined the entire affair for me.

From references to the movie Heavy Metal to listings of various co-writers and collaborators, so much has already been said about Fire of Unknown Origin. In so many different languages. A 15-second visit to the googleramps reveals a wide variety of reviews in everything from French, Spanish and English to this, from Strangecharm:

The only 3 which rank this largely junk-cult of previous decade hardened pop-rock trash above 1+1/2 stars, which ever really flared up enough to keep this ‘gee-wiz’ kid more than disaffectedly chill about the whole 9-yards of raw mid-glossed-over target-marketed material were the opening-salvo triad of shot, put above the usual same-old burn-out studio mixing board fare for such down-but-not-too-willingly-dirty modern swine-heardsmen & bore-huntswomen…”

(Someone’s trying a little too hard to sound like Don and Walt. But I digress.)

So I stepped away from the computer, put on my vinyl copy and got back in touch with why I love this album.

Simply put, it’s bright without being to cheery; it’s dark without being too moody; and it’s over-the-top without taking itself too seriously. The perfect balance, in my book.

At times the keyboard sounds come close to sounding dated, but still sound pretty fresh. I remember thinking how heavy this album sounded back in ’83, when I first heard it. With the technological advances in the past 30 years, it’s unfair to pull it out of context and judge it as pop. Yet, as we’ve said before, there’s really no other way to judge the timelessness of an album.

With this in mind, Fire of Unknown Origin stands the test of time pretty well if you enjoy pop (by today’s standards) hooks and tongue-in-cheek humor. And really, all things considered, it is still pretty heavy sounding.

Intended Sound vs. Actual Sound

Part of what makes this album magical for me is how I listen to it. That is to say, when I hear these songs, the soundstage is much broader in my head than what is actually being presented by the recording. The distortion, while being just fine on the record, for me is simply a respresentation of a much larger and heavier distortion; almost as if the actual recording is simply a reminder of a much more powerful recording, albeit one that has never actually existed.

For me this is part of the magic of Blue Oyster Cult; through Fire of Unknown Origin they’ve captured the spirit of something much grander than can be actually articulated.

Rant: Five Weeks without a turntable

I’d always wondered what I’d grab on my way out the door if the house ever caught fire.

Now, with the wife and the cat safely outside, eleven p.m. on a cold, December, Colorado night, getting my answer didn’t seem nearly as satisfying, or romantic, as I’d hoped. Hopping on one leg down the hallway, wallet and keys in the backpack on my arm, trying to put on my jacket and a boot simultaneously, it all became unceremoniously clear:

1) Wife’s new Martin acoustic. A no-brainer.

2) My ’96 PRS CU24. Also a no-brainer.

3) Laptop (WITH power cord). My connection to the world.

That was it. As we stood outside in the 10-degree F. weather for more than two hours, surrounded by emergency vehicles of all shapes and sizes, I realized that my two-week winter vacation (scheduled to start the next day, which I’d planned to spend writing and recording for the new album) was shot.

And I was right. That two weeks would be spent living in a local hotel, driving to the house each day, checking on the cleanup crews, talking with insurance agents (who were all on vacation for the holidays, naturally), wandering around town trying not to spend money frivolously, wishing, just WISHING I had my kitchen back so I could make a simple sandwich in the privacy of my own home without having to place an order, wait for the food, wait for the check, wait for the waiter to return with my card and the check, figure the tip, and try, just TRY to get out for less than $20, only to head back to the hotel for a late afternoon/early evening mind-numbing cocktail and prayers to the Hotel Gods that tonight’s new neighbors would not have small children who were excited to see the historic train, located some fifty feet away.

To be expected, no doubt.

But what I’d NOT expected was that today, more than Five Weeks later, on my birthday, no less, I’d STILL be without albums and turntable! As it stands at this very moment, all 600 or so LP’s are safely stored in an upstairs closet, where cleanup crews could not find them proudly displayed and accidentally send them crashing to the floor as they tried to move an entire 7-foot tall book case loaded down with precious vinyl.

“Better safe than sorry,” said I, and took it upon myself to make no fewer than 23 trips up and down the fifteen stairs to hide them safely out of sight and mind, protected from the clumsy fingers of the unannointed.

And let me tell you, Five Weeks is a long time.

Long enough to grow numb to the silence-enshrouded dinners. Long enough to forget the joy of arranging and rearranging. Long enough, in fact, to forget what I even have in the collection at all.

But today marked the end of cleanup crews. The end of painters, plastic drop cloths, and unexpected visits from clean and sober folks who talk way too loudly. Not quite the end of insurance paperwork, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Not yet.

And yet now, with freedom on the horizon, it occurs to me that there’s No Better Time than the present to rearrange our living situation. “If EVER there was a time to make those changes, it’s NOW, BEFORE making that second batch of 23 flights up and down the stairs with armloads of albums.” While I can’t bear the thought of another single day without being able to listen to my vinyl, at the same time, I can’t seem to decide on the best way to store them so they’re all at EYE LEVEL, within reasonable proximity to the turntable.

Prologue: the vinyl, back in action, a few days after this rant.

This, of course, is to say nothing of the issue of arranging the albums themselves. I’ve never been an “alphabetical” kind of guy… how can the Beatles and Black Sabbath be neighbors? Back in the day, I always arranged by emotional state. One of my favorite on-screen moments is John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity… arranging his albums autobiographically. And Dick, walking through the stacks of LP’s, as if in a trance, trying desperately to sound cool… “I could help you… uh… man… if you want…” or something like that. I’m not going to google the script right this moment.

My point, if there can possibly be one on a night like tonight, is that I’m tired, and I want to listen to my records again. But there are miles to go before I drop the needle on the wax again. Maybe this weekend? (Maybe tomorrow, maybe next summer… Girl, I just don’t know…)

Bottom line: Life without vinyl sucks. Life with vinyl, but without the means to play it, is treacherous. And life with a ton of vinyl that you love, that was NOT destroyed in the house fire, that is stashed away in the closet at the top of the stairs waiting for you to come bring it back into rotation, is, somehow, divine.