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.

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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.

KISS solo albums (1978)

A special 4-album review, since all four were simultaneously released on September 18, 1978.

In third grade, at a Catholic school in Iowa, we were allowed to bring records from home and listen to them with the headphones on if we had finished our school work. The nuns were so proud of my good grades and my polite behavior… so delighted by my enthusiasm for music. I can’t be certain that they would have shared my deep appreciation for my ’45 of KISS’ Shock Me / Strutter ’78. While the other kids were trying to finish up their reading assignment, I was in the back of the room, sitting on the big cinnamon-bun shaped area rug, trying to figure out what Ace meant when he sang, “Shock me, put on your black leather… Shock me, we can come together…”

Speaking of Ace, let’s start there. He covered New York Groove, written by Russ Ballard and first recorded by Hello in 1975. Even today, when I see someone driving by and I hear anything off of Ace’s solo album coming out of the speakers, I know without looking that it’s probably going to be a guy about my age driving that car.

Down to business. The needle hits the wax, we hear the crack of the snare, and “Rip It Out” kicks in, hard and fast. Not gonna lie; hooks abound throughout the album, and this was the perfect choice for the opening track. Next up is “Speeding Back To My Baby”, with some really sweet blues soloing (and a couple little backwards guitar parts thrown in for good measure). “Snowblind”… slower, and heavier. It would be years before I’d figure out what the term “snowblind” was referring to. “Ozone” — also nice and heavy, with lots of slow bends, double-stops, and blues scale soloing. Basic. But deliciously so. “What’s On Your Mind”… the first weak track of the album. Although I’d jump around my bedroom pretending to play guitar throughout the whole album, this song is where I’d take a break to go get a snack.

Side Two. The New York Groove I mentioned above. Catchy as hell. Not necessarily as heavy as the rest of the album, but maybe that’s why it made the charts. The whole song rests on the “Bo Diddley” rhythm, so it’s a nice tribute to the blues. “I’m In Need Of Love” is Ace at his drunk/high/spaciest. The sparse guitar parts and heavy delay really do give the feeling of walking on the moon at near-zero gravity. Kind of freaked me out, as a kid, because I didn’t understand exactly HOW he was making me feel so light-headed/heavy-hearted. But he did a great job of it.

“Wiped Out”–not a cover of the 1963 tune by the Safaris, though the opening drum part pays direct homage. Heavy juxtaposition between the verses (where the vocals and rhythm guitar work together to create a sense of frenzy that is just on the brink of spinning out of control)  and the chorus (slow, bluesy, thick-as-molasses, as if to say I’ve fallen down and I can barely drag myself across the floor to that chair). The theme of getting drunk / high / out of control runs through the album as a common thread. “Fractured Mirror”, the album’s final cut, was one of the most beautiful instrumentals I’d ever heard in my life, as a kid. I thought it was magic, and I never thought I’d ever understand how he wove such sonic beauty. Today I see that open D major shape sliding around the fretboard. The mystery is gone, but the beauty and magic still live on in my heart. (He milked it for everything he was worth with Fractured, Too and Fractured Quantum. Neither is as beautiful as the original, though.)

Ace’s solo album scores a solid 8.

Compare KISS' "Shandi" (1980) with Joe Walsh's "Tomorrow" (1978); identical chord progression, painfully similar melody lines, a carbon copy right down to the opening guitar fill. Only the words have been changed. Mere coincidence? Love to hear what Gene and Paul have to say about it... ("statute of limitations", I imagine.)

Next up: Gene.

Side One starts with some sort of creepy, evil, sinister “mad scientist in a laboratory” kind of sounds, and some chanting comes in. Gene is playing up his “scary monster” mystique to the fullest with this intro to “Radioactive”. (Think of “Radioactive” as “Calling Dr. Love”, part 2. Fade-in with creepy intro, build to climax, then hard-hitting power chords. A standard KISS formula.) And as a ten year-old kid, I bought it hook, line, and sinker. Apparently, I wasn’t alone; “Radioactive” broke the charts. (According to Historical Documents, the album reached #22 on the US Billboard album chart, making it the highest placing of all the four “Kiss” solos of 1978. But this does not change my review one bit.) This crescendos and vomits us right into “Radioactive” proper. One of our expert reviewers here at Black Wax Reviews has said that by starting his song with the lyrics, “You’re my food…”, Gene locks himself firmly in the pantheon of disposable rock. Like a rubber Richard Nixon mask, Gene makes it really, really difficult to take him seriously. But again, I was ten years old. Gene could have even put Cher talking on the phone on his album, and I would have loved every second of it. (Oh, that’s right. He did. And I did.)

But one of the reasons that we LOVE Gene is because he’s pure Gene. He doesn’t TRY to be Gene. And he certainly doesn’t try NOT to be Gene. He’s simply pure Gene, through and through. In fact, he’s pretty much as Gene as it gets. Not to stray TOO far from the subject at hand, but let’s take just a moment to explore what exactly it is that makes Gene so unbelievably Gene…

“When I go though her, it’s just like a hot knife through butter”

“She keeps her eggs in one basket, but I threw her a bone… she was dealt a full deck but she likes to live alone”

“Love ’em, leave ’em. Love ’em, leave ’em. Love ’em, leave ’em. Love ’em; leave ’em. Yeah!”

“Well it’s out of the frying pan, into the fire. So bend over baby, and let me be the driver.”

The only thing we’re missing here is wooden nickels and spitting into the wind. But that’s Gene. No one does Gene quite like Gene. And he’s SO Gene that he’s a millionaire as a result of it. I could pretend to be Gene, but at the end of the day, my conscience would get the best of me, and I’d have to apologize.

Back to the album. Track two is “Burning Up With Fever”, and it’s a pretty heavy rocker. It was a great idea to have the first two songs really hit hard. Then comes “See You Tonite”. Acoustic guitars. Gentle little pop song. Completely innocuous. Trying to widen the fan base to include more than ten year old boys. Like me. “Tunnel Of Love”… (“I’ve got to visit your tunnel of love…” *sigh*).

You know, as embarrassing as it is for me to admit this, I finally DID figure out what Gene and Paul must have been thinking when they started out. Initially (as legend has it), they wanted to name their band F*CK. But then backed off and named themselves KISS, instead. It’s no big leap to realize that almost all of their songs are about sex. They made themselves synonymous with songs about sex. (Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” — “When I woke up, mom and dad were rolling on the couch… rolling numbers, rock and rolling, got my KISS records out…”). But WHY? That was always the question on my naive mind. Then it hit me… what do 100% of human beings all have in common? We’re all (or mostly all) genetically disposed to carrying on the species through procreation. We all want to have sex. We all have a sex drive. Write about what the greatest percentage of humans has in common, and you stand to make that majority your fan base. (Conversely, if I only write about the organic chemistry experiment in my lab at work, I’m narrowing my potential fan base.) So EVEN THEN, Gene was being one shrewd cat. He wasn’t trying to change the world. Wasn’t trying to cure cancer. Wasn’t trying to become some spiritual leader. He was aiming directly for the crotch. Yep. That’s our Gene. By the way, “True Confessions” just sucks.

Side Two: “Living In Sin”. Mid-tempo rocker starring Cher. “I’m living in sin at the Holiday Inn, yeah.” Need I say more? “Always Near You/Nowhere to Hide”–slower, and actually pretty hooky. Stuck in my head a lot, as a kid. And hey, Gene had an impressive vocal range… listen to those closing notes. Almost sounds like Paul’s falsetto on “I Was Made For Loving You”. Which I always aspired to, but never could quite hit. “Man of 1,000 Faces”… it’s cool to listen to the instrumentation he used… some orchestral stuff. But in the words of some wise man, “you can’t polish a turd.” No substance. “See You In Your Dreams” is a re-recording of the same track that was on Rock And Roll Over. An okay song, but not worth redoing, in my opinion. And then, as only Gene could do, he wraps the album with “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Yep. THAT one. The one you heard from the good folks at Disney. Oh, man. Just like Van Halen doing “Happy Trails” accapella, this is one of those magical novelty songs that went on EVERY mix tape for my non-KISS friends. Earned me cool points every time.

Gene’s solo album: A conditional 7 stars. Would have been a 5, but the album cover and included poster (which interlocked with the other band members’ posters, and were all done by the same artist) gives this album extra cool points. Gene inspired a generation of rockers with his image and attitude. The Melvins are just one example.

Peter’s Solo Album

Full disclosure: Peter was my favorite member of KISS back then, and his solo album was the first of the four that I bought. I was a pretty fragile kid, probably 85 lbs dripping wet, and the late 70’s were a very strange time in my life. I related to Peter as someone who would probably be pretty cool in real life; nice, but still cool enough to be a superhero. So, regardless of how lame some of his songs may have been, I cut him the most slack. Actually, I simply worshipped him; there was no cutting him slack required.

So when I dropped the needle on Side One for the first time, I was already prepared to LOVE whatever I heard. And I did. From the very first bass note that slides down and crashes into “I’m Gonna Love You”, I was hooked. Track two, “You Matter To Me” was the end-all-be-all for me. I listened to that song so much that I can’t believe I didn’t get sick of it. I wore grooves into my brain with that song, until I could listen to every nuance from memory. While avoiding bullies on the school bus. While sitting in math class. While walking home in the snow. I can still hear it now.

“Tossin’ and Turnin’– (Yes, THAT one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tossin%27_and_Turnin%27). I had no idea who Bobby Lewis was, and I don’t ever remember hearing the original before this. I thought it was pretty good… but since it was Peter Criss, of course, it was awesome to me. “Don’t You Let Me Down” was slower, and seemed like a really good song to me back then. Nice bass line. “That’s the Kind of Sugar Papa Likes”… a little more upbeat. Still, pretty tame.

Side Two: “Easy Thing”… “Love’s such an easy thing… such an easy thing… such an easy thing to looooooooooose… yeah!” Well, okay. Peter’s voice reminded me of Rod Stewart’s. And that was a good thing. (I wore out my copy of Blondes Have More Fun.) “Kiss The Girl Goodbye”… again with the heartbreak. Okay, Peter. I get it. “Hooked On Rock And Roll” “I was vaccinated with a Victrola needle, and I’m hooked on rock and roll.” Yeah. Now we’re talking. “I Can’t Stop The Rain”… more strings, more tears falling down like rain… which was what I felt like I could relate to, at the time.

Does it stand the test of time? No. Not really. It’s a cool album to HAVE. But seriously, it’s not going to get played very often. Not like Ace’s will. If you’re looking for records to PLAY, then get Dynasty, instead. Peter makes up for lost time on that one.

Pete, I love you, Man… and it breaks my heart, but it just can’t be helped. 4 stars.

Paul’s solo album.

Dammit. I was thinking about how funny it would be to simply write, “Paul’s album sucked. The end.” And leave it at that.

But I can’t. Because, in all actuality, Paul’s album probably stands the test of time better than any of the others. Ace’s comes in a close second. Gene’s and Peter’s tie for last place.

I’m talking about the strength of the songwriting. Intro. Verse. Chorus. The chord progressions. the dynamics. Like it or not, Paul nails it. And just to be clear, Paul was never my favorite. But man, he can write a song.

The album kicks off with clean acoustic (layers of it) and bass. Then vocals. He goes from IV to V to vi… then IV to V to iii… Lets the acoustic ring out on iii… and then heavily distorted crunch comes in on a vi chord. It still gives me chills the way the electric cuts through after all the pretty stuff. Whereas Ace opens his album by hitting us across the face with a 2×4; Gene does the “special effects” lead-in; and Peter does the honky-tonk thing (ouch), Paul hooks us with the pretty stuff… genuinely pretty (even 33 years later!) and actually uses a harmonic progression that makes sense musically.

Then, just when we’re lulled into a false sense of security, just when we least expect it, the sledgehammer comes down. And we’re left stumbling around, wondering where the ‘heavy’ came from. “Wait a minute… I thought it was “just Paul”… I thought it was gonna be just sappy love songs…” “Where the hell did THIS come from?” (But trust me, it’s a GOOD wondering.)

“Move On” is an uptempo rocker that is pretty powerful, despite the whole “when I was just a baby momma sat me on her knee” thing. “Ain’t Quite Right”… it’s just okay. “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me”… also a bit weaker than the opening track. “Take Me Away (Together As One)” has a nice acoustic intro, and some nice electric (something with humbuckers… for KISS, it was always humbuckers… Neither Ace nor Paul would be caught dead with a Strat). The chorus is heavy. I mean, I love this chorus. As much as I hate to love it, I can’t help it. This is good. Really good. Some sweet electric work in there, too.

Side Two: “It’s Alright” is a high-energy rocker that kicks off the side beautifully. (Man, am I really praising Paul’s solo so highly? I was really looking forward to tearing it apart. Not to beat a dead horse, but the songwriting is strong here. Paul clearly doesn’t mess around.) “Hold Me, Touch Me (Think Of Me When We’re Apart)”… okay, enough already with the long titles. Another love song. (Starchild. Write me another love song. Awk!) “Love In Chains”… another really strong one, and it leads right into “Goodbye”, which might sound, by the title, like it’s going to be some sort of lame, lukewarm pap. But no. The last two tracks on Side Two pretty much lock it up. Paul is the Man here… he knows how to finesse the pretty stuff… how to contrast it with the heavy stuff, and how to walk that fine line between the two, creating the perfect balance. Dammit, even the purple lighting on his hair looks cool. I SO wanted to hate this album. But I simply cannot.

Paul, I salute you. You get 9 stars.

Demon: The Plague (1983)

We reach for the sleeve. Gatefold, naturally. (No other version will do. And don’t talk to me about how the cover has nothing to do with the music. This album is an entity; a living, breathing thing. Single sleeve versions simply can’t provide the overall experience that the full gatefold sleeve does. But I digress…)

Gatefold. Black and white pencil drawing on the cover: creepy robot guy in a pinstripe suit, bowler hat, tie, carnation on his lapel.

Syringe in his hand. One foot planted firmly on the earth. Shredded UN flag by his side. Small, cheap-looking portable tv with broken screen in the background. Old-school “futuristic” “computer font” for the album’s title: THE PLAGUE.

Creepy in some sort of political way that I don’t quite get. Because I’m only 15 years old at the time. Too naive to understand much about politics. But wise enough to sense that it’s unsettling.

Inside, gatefold art. More black and white drawings. People iimprisoned behind fences. Crouched desparately in hallways… our evil bowler hat-wearing robot friend always ready with needle in hand…

Speaking of “needle”, we let it drop. Fade in some synth sound that seems to emulate aural pinpricks… (the painful stabbing pricking of the syringe as it breaks through skin and psyche?)
Mal Spooner’s legendary opening hook. A single black line cutting through the pinpricks, punctuated by 2 power chords. Swirling synths in the background. After we repeat this A/B motif, cymbal crashes usher in a palm-muted rhythm guitar and some heavy drum rolls. (Single-sticking all the way.)

Finally, the drums kick in and we enter the chorus. Still pretty heavy, even with piano thrown in. Awesome vocal harmonies… root, third, fifth. (Live they only pulled off the root and fifth, leaving a big hole. But it’s understandable… live is live. A whole different world.)

Chorus transitions into Verse 1, and we’re seemingly in a different world. We just stepped out of the gloom and darkness into a somewhat brighter scene, albeit lit by the loud hum and flicker of high pressure sodium vapor streetlights and graffiti. Those keyboards border on being just a touch too cheerful for me. But somehow, it works.

The rest of the album is awesome.

After falling in love with The Plague, I jumped on the next release, “Wonderland” (EP) with high expectations. [The song “Wonderland” had been included on a compilation album like Metal Minded (http://www.amazon.com/Metal-Minded-Various-Artists/dp/B0008392HG).] Blindingly sunny and cheerful, the synths made me feel like I was riding in the Partridge Family bus. Thus ended my brief intimate relationship as a fan of Demon, the dynamic, changing band. (RIP, Mal.)

The love affair with The Plague lingers on, however, some 28 years later.

Icon: Icon (1984)

Let’s face it… not all music that moves us as youth stands the test of time. One of the joys of Black Wax Reviews is traveling through time and finding out what was good and what was awful.

Case in point: When I was 9 years old, I needed heavy. Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” and Neil Diamond’s “America” made me feel like I was standing triumphantly on a mountaintop, wind blowing through my hair. Today… not so much.

Our beloved 80’s metal is no different. Some of these albums that seemed so incredibly powerful back then (e.g., Y&T’s “In Rock We Trust”… Lizzy Borden… sorry, guys) fall flat today. Like a two-day old 7-Up left open in the fridge.

That being said, I’m happy to report that Icon’s self-titled debut sounds just as heavy, tight, and cohesive as it did when it first came out 27 years ago.

THE STATE OF METAL IN 1984
To zoom out for a second, 1984 was pretty much the Perfect Storm for Awesome Metal Albums. To name but a few:

  1. Accept: Balls to the Wall
  2. AC/DC: 74 Jailbreak
  3. Anthrax: Fistful of Metal (actually “Fistful of Meal” on my copy of the cassette)
  4. Armored Saint: March of the Saint
  5. Deep Purple: Perfect Strangers
  6. Dio: Last in Line
  7. Dokken: Tooth and Nail
  8. Fates Warning: Night on Brocken
  9. Great White: Great White
  10. Grim Reaper: See You in Hell
  11. Hanoi Rocks: Two Steps from the Move
  12. Helstar: Burning Star
  13. Iron Maiden: Powerslave
  14. Judas Priest: Defenders of the Faith
  15. KISS: Animalize
  16. Lizzy Borden: Give Em The Axe
  17. Mercyful Fate: Don’t Break the Oath
  18. Metal Church: Metal Church
  19. Metallica: Ride the Lightning
  20. Queensryche: The Warning
  21. Ratt: Out of the Cellar
  22. Saxon: Crusader
  23. Scorpions: Love at First Sting
  24. Slayer: Haunting the Chapel
  25. Spinal Tap: This Is Spinal Tap
  26. Stryper: Yellow and Black Attack
  27. Van Halen: 1984
  28. Venom: At War with Satan
  29. W.A.S.P.: W.A.S.P.
  30. Whitesnake: Slide It In
  31. White Wolf: Standing Alone
  32. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: Rising Force

With such a wide variety of metal happening, it’s hard to believe that Icon could stand out among the rest. But it did. And still does.

IS IT PERFECT?

Now, don’t get me wrong… Just like a case of Budweiser or a healthy serving of AC/DC, it is what it is. If you’re looking for the answers to life, you’re probably not going to find them here. The lyrics aren’t necessarily very philosophical, existential, or deep.

However, to a scared, confused, disaffected 16 year-old male trying his best to figure out which way was up while living in a small, conservative Texas town in 1984, this album was a life saver. It addressed relevant issues like alienation, the desire to claim and illuminate an inner mettle I didn’t know existed, and, of course, women. Gorgeous women. Sexy women. Dangerous women.

Since I knew basically nothing about actual women, I found the topic highly interesting.

CATEGORIZING THE BAND’S SOUND
Not quite as fast (tempo-wise) as The Big Four… Not quite as dark (subject matter-wise) as Mercyful Fate or Venom… Heavier than Deep Purple, Dokken, and Ratt. More of a complete unit (as a band) rather than simply a vehicle designed to showcase one musician’s talents (Malmsteen)…

And I daresay not as melodramatic as Grim Reaper, Lizzy Borden, or WASP. (Multiple reviewers from back in the day made direct comparisons to WASP/Priest, as opposed to Ratt/Motley Crue. For what it’s worth.)

Somewhere in between all that. Somewhere right down the middle. That’s where I see Icon.

GUITARS
First off, guitar sound. (As of press time, our staff has an e-mail out to the Icon guys requesting specifics on the gear used for the recording of Icon. Will update with more info asap. –Ed.) Definitely not Fender Strats… not stock, anyway. There’s no way those are single coils we’re hearing. Too much gain. Definitely humbuckers; probably active… maybe EMG 81’s and 85’s.

More than likely the guitars used were Jacksons, Robins, or possibly Kramers, which were extremely popular back then. I’ll spare you the whole “Eddie Van Halen/Frankenstrat/Kramer connection, trusting that you know how to use Google. Be warned—you’ll be reading for awhile.

AMPS

I’m going to say Marshalls, simply because they were so incredibly popular. While they still are giants in the industry, these days amp companies have figured out that there’s an entire market of people who want to get full gain sound at low volumes. Today there are tons of boutique amp companies out there building everything from hybrid (solid state/tube) amps to lunchbox-sized, back-saving tube amps that offer monster tones and incredibly complex and rich distortion.

These options didn’t exist back then.

Back in the mid-80’s, the only way to get high-gain sounds with tube amps (which offer tones and feedback musicality that solid state amps simply could not rival) was to crank up the volume and get those vacuum tubes glowing. Since “gain” was tied to “volume”, you couldn’t get heavy distortion without waking the neighbors.

But I digress… I’m guessing Marshalls, and I’m going with that until the band tells me otherwise.

EQ

A popular EQ trend back then was to ‘scoop the mids’, meaning that on a graphic equalizer, the lowest and highest frequencies would be pushed high, the mid-range tones would be significantly lower, and everything else would be in between. Like a “V”. (See photo) Icon’s sound on this album is consistently edgy and bright, which suggests a lot of high end. At the same time, it sounds as though they have scooped the mids (a technique that significanlty contributed to defining the 80’s metal sound). Too much midrange can result in listening fatigue. (Listen to AC/DC’s “Fly On The Wall” album from start to finish and see if you get a headache. That’s an example of too much midrange.)

WHAT MAKES ICON UNIQUE

In addition to a unique, edgy, high-gain guitar sound, I’d say that what makes Icon stand out for me is Dan Wexler’s guitar technique. While he holds his own in the ‘soloing’ arena, it’s his rhythm playing that really stands out as being unique. He uses a lot of major 2nd intervals, rather than relying strictly on root-fifth shapes.

Lots of bands in the day could play fast. Lots of bands could write about fast cars, women, war, being tough, or ‘scary stuff’. Lots of bands could demonstrate technical proficiency and even virtuosity. Where Icon really shines is in Wexler’s ability to play a major second and sit with it, creating long, musical arcs, as opposed to relying on choppy rhythms all the time.

Even today, I find myself drawn in by the opening to (Rock On) Through The Night and Rock ‘n’ Roll Maniac for these very reasons. The opening to I’m Alive see-saws from root-fifth through a tri-tone down to a root-fourth, then back up through the tri-tone to the original root-fifth. So simple. Yet so incredibly effective in grabbing my attention.

Back in the day, I was in love with the instrumental, Iconoclast. It still holds up pretty well today, though now that I, myself have grown as a guitarist, I can recognize some of the lead guitar patterns (e.g., descending minor scale in four-note groupings) that he used (over-used?) and I’m reminded of the dangers and pitfalls of having a ‘new favorite lick’.

DOWNERS

While it’s not fair to judge anything out of context, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that this album does come off as a bit dated (“We’re in a world war… in 1994”) and even cliché at times (“together we stand, divided we fall”). I have to wonder about how strongly the popular metal bands of the day were influencing and being influenced by one another; Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil had been released just the year before, and from the looks of it, the guys in Icon was shopping from the same fashion catalog. (And I can’t help but notice some similarities between Killer Machine and Too Young To Fall In Love… but then again, I know I have to be careful on this or pretty soon I’ll be talking about how Welcome To The Jungle is really Zero The Hero, Dio’s “Invisible” is really “Shout At The Devil” (or vice-versa)… this song is really that song… it’s all downhill from there.)

But honestly, photos of myself wearing parachute pants that year make me wince as well, so I can’t really hold dated fashion against them. When I first saw the poster (included with the original release of the LP), I was highly impressed. While I haven’t necessarily hung the poster on my studio wall yet, I’m still considering. There’s still an admirable amount of retro-cool cache’ there.

RATING

Bottom-line—These songs stuck in my head long after my cassette copy died. Long after 80’s metal was no longer cool. Long after I’d ‘grown up and gotten a real job’. To paraphrase Bruce-Bruce in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, it’s important to keep that inner-child alive. Let him die, and life is a sadder place.

It took some time and energy to track down a near-mint copy of Icon on vinyl, but from the moment it arrived and I pulled it from the sleeve, it’s been completely worth it.

Doesn’t quite bring tears of joy to my eyes; isn’t quite as timeless as other stuff out there, and could do with a bit more bottom end (I understand it’s been remastered… hopefully available on vinyl, as well??). But still grabs my attention with interesting guitar playing and catchy, memorable hooks.

Icon rating: 9 stars out of 11

Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1974)

Welcome to Black Wax Reviews. Our tagline is “Nothing New”, and we mean it. If you’re looking to read reviews about albums that have been out forever and have been reviewed a thousand times already, or that you haven’t heard of and might not even deserve to be reviewed, then you’re in the right place.

We’re going to start out this blog with a masterpiece: Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

Let me just start out by saying that when I was a kid and I first heard this, I wasn’t impressed. It’s taken me decades to figure out why, but I finally get it. It wasn’t that Sabbath was too HEAVY for me… it was that the jazzy ‘in-between’ parts weren’t heavy ENOUGH. Back then, I simply did not know how to make sense of those sections… for all I knew, it may as well have been country music slipped in between the cool heavy stuff.

And for that reason alone, I abandoned Sabbath. (Ozzy-era Sabbath, anyway. Mob Rules would change my life just a few short years later. But that’s another story.)

Well. No longer. Now, some 33 years later, it’s time to give this album its due.

The needle drops on Side One and we hear the title track, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Instantly we can tell that although Tony didn’t have access to the amps  that we have today, he was tearing it up. He was probably using an Orange 1972 amp w/ 4×12 cab on this album. So many of the awesome guitars of the day are still highly valued today, including his Gibson SG’s, which have become his signature trademark.

I will say that a video of Heaven and Hell (the band with Dio, not the album) in 2009 shows him still jamming with an SG, but with an updated sound that rivals any of today’s bands. (Check out Tony’s sound on 8/29/2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqMyEalm-JI&feature=related.)

Flashback: When I was 12 and I got a turntable for Christmas and my stepdad let me dig through his LP’s, there was a reason simply couldn’t get into this album. Looking back, I figured it was simply too heavy for me. (At the time, I was listening to a steady diet of KISS root-fifth power chords.) But in retrospect, I can see that what turned me off from this album wasn’t its heaviness. Rather, it was the jazzy, laid-back feel of the choruses (like on the title track) that sent me running away covering my ears.

Even the words “Oh, he sits around listening to Black Sabbath” conjure up visions of heaviness, but a heaviness laden with boredom, simplistic thinking, and… let’s face it… stupidity. But one careful listen reveals the exact opposite… the title track, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, really has a lot more going on than the opening heavy riff might lead one to believe.

Once the chorus hits, things mellow out for a moment, and there’s jazz in the air. Some really complex, kick ass jazz. Then, before you know it, we’re back into the heavy stuff, and we’re on to verse 2. Pretty genius, in this reviewer’s opinion. Oh yeah, and back then, Ozzy could REALLY hit those high notes. Nice. I’ve heard Bruce Dickinson cover this in the modern era, with modern equipment, etc. As great as he is, just can’t compare to the original.

Track 2: A National Acrobat. Awesome riff.

Track 3: Fluff. Pretty. It’s always fun to put on that track for dinner guests who don’t know me very well and ask them to take a guess. Coolest thing ever is how they closed “Live Evil” with that track.

Track 4: Sabbra Cadabra. A love song about a woman. Trippy. The piano in there almost gives it a rock and roll feel. How did they do it? Somehow, Sabbath become synonymous with All Things Heavy… but listening to this, there is so much tasteful, un-heavy music happening.

SIDE TWO

Track 1: Killing Yourself To Live — Not to beat a dead horse, but those old tube amps being overdriven just really sounds good. Funny how Ozzy’s singing about all these positive things… yet this album was catching such a bad rap. “Just take a look around you, what do you see? Pain, suffering, and misery…”

Track 2: Who Are You — Okay. State-of-the-art technology happening with the synths. Whatever. Still sounds cool. Creepy, slow, and menacing. Main riff is based on the tri-tone (diminished fifth), which, of course, was (and is) a staple of heaviness. “The devil in music.” And then in the middle we have a pretty huge, gorgeous-sounding section. Stately. Orchestral, even. Then, back to creepy. I love it.

Track 3: Looking for Today — Cool snare thing going on there. Up-tempo, and rocking. Flute. Oh yeah… Tony was in Tull there for a little while, in the beginning. You can check him out on the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. Tull as a band is lip-syncing, but Ian is actually singing and playing his flute. And standing on one leg. And I guess Tony’s really playing, though we’re hearing the backing track, instead of his actual performance. Turns out the Stones didn’t have enough time for Tull to rehearse, so had them lip-sync. Oh well… still highly recommended. And it ‘s the only video of Tony with Tull. Reason enough to check it out.

Track 4: Spiral Architect — Sweet acoustic beginning. (King Diamond/Merciful Fate actually stole that one for their track “Sleepless Nights”, off of the album Abigail. Pretty sweet. I don’t blame them for stealing it.) Chorus is awesome… if you check out the vocal phrasing on the chorus and compare it to that of later Ozzy (“Over the mountain”), you’ll see some striking similarities. Like, carbon copy. But then again, I don’t blame Ozzy for nicking his own stuff… it’s damned good.

Spiral Architect chorus:

Of all the things I value most of all
I look inside myself and see my world
And know that it is good

Over The Mountain chorus:

I heard them tell me that this land of dreams was now
I told them I had ridden shooting stars
And said I’d show them how

The sweetest part of all, though, is the closing of Side Two, with the fake applause and then the reprise.

When I was 12, I couldn’t handle this album, because I needed something heavy. Like KISS. These days, I see that the laid-back parts simply make the heavy stuff even heavier. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is a masterpiece from start to finish. There simply are no weak tracks on this album. It could not be any more perfect than it already is.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath rating: 10 stars out of 11