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.

Advertisements

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