Friday, June 13, 2014

Deep Purple In Rock

While the origins of hard rock and heavy metal are varied and nuanced, there are three British bands perched right at the confluence of all these various streams, and they loom quite large. Led Zeppelin, scourge of Rolling Stone has the most notoriety and direct influence on straight up rock, while Black Sabbath firmly put their stamp on the underworld nightmares that inform most of metal’s vocabulary. Deep Purple is the other giant, and their influence is no less special. Because Purple is often treated by music historians the way American Veteran’s Day parade organizers treat survivors of the Korean War, I feel I should spend a little more time with this band than I have the previous entries.

Deep Purple had been around for a few years, recording since 1968. They underwent a massive overhaul in sound and approach after guitarist Ritchie Blackmore heard what Jimmy Page was doing with Led Zeppelin, and in 1970 spit out Deep Purple In Rock. Clocking in at 43:30, it was a sonic assault years ahead of its time. Blackmore and keyboardist Jon Lord coaxed bizarre, distorted cries out of their instruments before the rise of synthesizers, and Ian Paice fires off drum beats faster than a belt-fed machine gun.

What Deep Purple brings to the table here is a starting kit for nearly every heavy metal band from the 80s. It is Ian Gillan’s-not Robert Plant’s-falsetto that launched a thousand air raid siren imitators, and Ritchie Blackmore raised the bar for guitar performances in ways that are difficult to express in a review this size. Jeff Beck was an innovator, but was lost in his own instrumental experiments as opposed to writing album-oriented rock music. Jimmy Page was a genius with rhythm and unorthodox tunings, and understood recording like no one else. But he was also a sloppy lead player, rarely bothering to work a solo out before he committed it to analogue. Tony Iommi was equally genius when it came to crafting riffs, but was content to stay in the pocket with his blues-lick solos for the remainder of the 70s. Brian May had a tone unlike anything anyone had ever heard, but he was playing fairly orthodox runs. Eric Clapton’s balls had fallen off. What was Ritchie doing? Inventing shred. He was the first rock guitarist to introduce Aeolian minor to his lead work, resulting in guitar solos full of classically rooted scale work and taking rock music off the established blues reservation. His lead work was faster, cleaner, more imaginative, and more full-throttle than anyone else on the block. Blackmore’s gleeful, unrepentant abuse of the fretboard opened the door for later guitarists like Uli John Roth, Michael Schenker, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen. That’s a thing right there.

The main thing holding In Rock back is the production. The wet cardboard box sound hampered Purple (specifically Blackmore’s tone) for years, and they were never able to find that formula that let Zeppelin blow up speakers. Despite this ever-apparent flaw, the tunes here are hewn of iron. Purple isn’t explosive like Zeppelin or heavy like Sabbath, but they are hard.  Jon Lord and Blackmore grant a fantastical prog feel to the material, but there is also a raw, unrestrained savagery on display, recalling early 60s garage rock. Speed King opens the album up with a bang, featuring fluid, torrential scale work by Blackmore and Lord while Gillan dredges up his best Little Richard impression. Flight of the Rat shows off how much faster Purple was than their contemporaries, ignoring the fun, off-the-beat playing Page and Iommi employed in favor of sheer velocity. Hard Loving Man drives this point further home, sounding like a blueprint for what Judas Priest (often credited with introducing speed to metal) was doing nearly a decade later. There aren’t too many haymakers on this album; Purple has instead elected to throw a staccato series of hard, stiff jabs that sting long after they dissipate.

The big bopper and aforemention sparse haymaker here is the grandiose and epic (The damn thing is over ten minutes long and ends the first side of the original vinyl release) Child in Time. The spooky ethereal chiaroscuro effects Page and Iommi played with are present, lending gravitas and pathos to Lord’s keys while Gillan wails almost religiously. The tension continues to build until the three and a half minute mark when Ritchie takes over to demonstrate why he was the most badass gunslinger on his side of the Atlantic in the early 70s. Seriously folks, this is one you have to hear.

Verdict: Deep Purple took a sharpened edge to the rock scene with this album, and it kicks ass in ways you can’t understand. They would go on to craft more well-known, better polished pieces before breaking up, but they never stormed the top of the mountain quite like this again. 5 out of 5 stars.   

The album cover may seem a bit ridiculous, until you consider the inherent absurdity of the actual Mount Rushmore.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Black Sabbath

Let’s get one thing out of the way now: Black Sabbath did not “invent heavy metal”. Why? First of all, music is a culturally-constructed fabric sewn into society. Genres emerge from a confluence of different places and attitudes, they are shaped by the greater political and historical events of the day, similar or identical developments spring up independent of one another, etc. Trying to pin a medal on whoever “invented heavy metal” is like trying to suss out who “invented Tragedy”. It just kind of happens, and is codified after the fact with some contributors being more influential than others. Harrumph.

Having said all that, it’s more or less impossible to have a conversation about early metal without placing Sabbath front and center. They took the proto sludge and amped up aggression of Detroit’s rock scene and burned away at the psychedelic impurities until all that was left was a lean, angry, pentatonic machine of ass-kickery. Black Sabbath’s first album, Black Sabbath, has a run time of 38:12 and one of the most unsettling covers I’ve ever seen; that image grants no quarter for comfort, and sets the stage for what lurks on the disc. The album’s tone is very stripped down, and aside from a few inserted sound effects, sounds a lot like a live set; I can’t detect any obvious overdubbing or the sort.

Black Sabbath is the eponymous first track on the eponymous first album, and summarizes what the band is about beautifully (horrifyingly?). It opens up slowly with the sounds of rain and distant church bells, before Tony Iommi pops off a flatted fifth interval, possibly the most evil sound in western civilization’s cultural lexicon.  Ozzy Osbourne has a strained, phlegm-filled throat, wailing like something that should have been put out of its misery long ago.

The rest of the album is constructed rather oddly. The Wizard features a harmonica that seems inappropriately cheery for the rest of this album’s content. Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Bassically/N.I.B. is another 800 ton moment for the band, but it’s constructed as a meandering suite of different unfinished songs. The Wall portion is excellent, introducing Lovecraft-inspired lyrics to the band’s arsenal. Bassically doesn’t really need to be partitioned from the suite’s coda, although it does serve as a neat little bit of wah pedal attitude from bassist Geezer Butler. But N.I.B. (Rumored to stand for Nativity in Black) is the takeaway from the track. Hard, mean, musically focused, and replete with Butler lyrics featuring Lucifer beckoning to the listener, this is a clinic on what Sabbath’s sound would be for the next decade.

Wicked World is worth a spin if you’re interested in exploring Iommi’s jazz and blues inclinations, but it’s a good example of the Clapton-esque tendencies that had not yet been denatured from the formula. A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning is another weird suite of pieces not fully developed. While there is nothing here even close to the iconic status occupied by N.I.B., it does serve as a vibrant library of riffs and bass lines that would go on to form the spine of many a metal band’s sonic assault. It clocks in at a shade over fourteen minutes, however, and chooses to meander more often than not. Other than learning that Iommi gets a lot of mileage out of employing heavy vibrato in his rhythm work, there isn’t much here for the casual listener.

Verdict: This album is uneven at best, but while there is high amount of chaff, the wheat more than makes up for it. Sabbath would take what worked here and blow up the world with their next release, but that is a review for another time. 3 out of 5 stars.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Led Zeppelin I

Led Zeppelin is one of those bands that can be rather difficult to talk about. ‘Legendary’ doesn’t quite encapsulate their place in global pop culture; their look, feel, and ethos are inextricable from what one thinks of when they hear the words “classic rock”. Once you exhaust the torturous string of autopilot accolades and modern rock frontmen reflexively spewing libations in their honor, what are you really left with? A pretty goddamn good rock band is what.

Led Zeppelin’s eponymous first album deployed in January of 1969. It features 9 tracks and clocks in at 44:26. For anyone who would have been around listening to pop music in Britain at the time, this album did not just drop out of the sky (as the cover art so cheekily implies). Jimmy Page was a red-hot session player who had logged time in the Yardbirds with fellow session guitarist and six string hero Jeff Beck. Beck himself had already cut an album with Rod Stewart that bears more than a passing resemblance to what’s on display here.

While there is undoubtedly some strong material on Zeppelin’s maiden voyage, the real hero on this album is the strong production values Jimmy Page imparts on the whole affair. It’s hard to appreciate for newcomers, but the bright, intimate, three-dimensional atmosphere of Page’s mixing was the exception to the rule in 1969. His guitar tone is fat, fuzzy, searing, and very indicative of his future Les Paul sound (He recorded this album with a Fender Telecaster). John Bonham’s drums cause the lower register of lesser speaker systems to explode. Plant’s belted vocals often feel thrust right in your face. Recorded music was not supposed to sound this crisp for another twenty years.

Material-wise, Zeppelin understood how to kick ass from the get go. While some of the more aggressive material can be downright derivative (The cover of You Shook Me really jams the fact that Zeppelin’s members are white, British guys right up your nose), they impart a dark, foreboding vibe into other pieces like Dazed and Confused, refusing to allow the listener to get comfortable. Another trick Page and the boys employ on this album is what fancy-pants artistes call chiaroscuro, an Italian term meaning ‘light-dark’*. Pieces like Dazed and Communication Breakdown come off even harder and more metallic than they would have otherwise, because softer acoustic pieces like Your Time Is Gonna Come and Black Mountain Side offer stark contrast. And speaking of Black, Page also introduces us to his predilection for absolutely bizarre and unorthodox acoustic tunings on this album.

The Verdict: Zeppelin’s first offering is strong, solid, historic, and influential. While there are a couple bona fide rock classics contained here, it was Zeppelin’s destiny to crank out bigger, better albums as time wore on. Led Zeppelin I gets 4 out of 5 stars.          

*Or, as my father would say, the subtle interplay between light and shadow.