ROBERT PLANT LIVE AT KNEBWORTH 1990? YES PLEASE. AND A MOGWAI SOUNDTRACK? IT WOULD BE RUDE NOT TO….
Finally, after many years of hoping-but-failing, we have a Record Store Day release to buy without hesitation. This might sound strange for RSD fanatics but, for me, the day/event has always been a contrived effort (see Great RSD Swindle? post) despite the good intentions.
But thank Plant for a 2021 turnaround: a nice little twelve incher that collects 4 tracks from Robert Plant’s Knebworth 1990 set. Taped it from the radio at the time and still have the cassette, but when the whole thing got aired on the tellybox, didn’t some halfwit decide to cut Liar’s Dance? There’s something about that Knebworth broadcast that annoyed. Pretty sure it was having one of Plant’s best tracks chopped.
Or maybe that’s an invented memory. Dunno.
Anyway, back to Truck Store and this EP is what an RSD release should be: something previously unavailable, tarted up so it’s a bit spesh (yellow vinyl), not obscenely priced, and for a lifelong Robert Plant fan this does the job in spades, buckets and shovels. Thank you, RSD peoples.
RSD 2021 part 1 didn’t quite end there. Mogwai’s ZeroZeroZero soundtrack stuck its tongue out and taunted a budget stretch. Shit. Went home to ponder and check some audio online first, which sounds ridiculous because it’s Mogwai, and Mogwai fucking rule, right? Yes. Especially this year.
Then again, it is a soundtrack. But a few seconds’ worth of random ZeroZeroZero samples said yeah, get it or forever be fool. Of regret.
So, a much better Record Store Day at this end. How was yours?
This blog is getting a bit of a rethink so these new-sounds Rewinds might not feature much more – changing perspectives and all that. Not sure. But until then, here’s a trio of underexposed catches.
OWLMASK: Gesh Uru
You’re on the run. This is the music that’s over your shoulder.
Like a systematic raygun attack wrapped up in rigid retro electronics, Gesh Uru emits paranoia. Anonymously mechanical – think Portishead’s Machine Gun but strip out all vocal and bottom-end – and awash with electro vibrations and pulses, it expands while you listen. Gets bigger. Creeps up. Or is that the paranoia??? Check it right here. And Boo Cook, aka Owlmask, is half of Forktail too so give them a go for an occult folklore fix.
BORED LORD: The Weapon of Sound
Ah yes … righteous digital artillery from the church of rage – kneel before Bored Lord and submit to a RATM vocal sample pushed through a megawatt drum ‘n bass beat. Perfect for metal heads (sorry…).
If things are going a little too well in your world (said no-one, 2020-21), Lilith will put the stoppers on it. Slug-tempo despair and spectral goth, right outta … Arizona. Yep. The desert. Admittedly, funereal punishment ain’t really working for me in these COVID-heavy times, but this airless hole struck a chord – maybe even two – and a track’s worth of oppressive crush is just about do-able.
(while you’re scrubbing about Lilith’s pit, check Oxford’s Undersmile for similarly brutal slo-mo kicks. Just make sure you let a crack of light back in your life afterwards, eh?)
What day is it? What month? Oh yeah, Lockdown 2021. Time as we once knew it has been rubbed out.
Anyway, VERY short Rewind to kick off the new year coz full lockdown has drained all time and energy and this post really should have 1) been posted in January, and 2) included more stuff. BUT …. what a tune, if you’ve not heard it yet.
There are great tracks. And there are great tracks that stop you dead. South is very definitely the second type. Producer-instrumentalist Wu-Lu’s restless beats are hyper-charged and on the move, loaded with pent-up energy … you just know something’s gotta give. And it does. It explodes in a harsh primal scream you can bodyslam to. Terrace Martin’s Pig Feet was the track of the year in 2020 no question, and South’s street action is already in the running for 2021. FEEL IT. South is this way.
HOLY FAWN: Candy
This is a year old but popped up last week and struck a chord or six so here goes. Cold Mogwai post-isms with dream-state vocals floating/drowning all around, you’d put money on a black metal scream and pace change to rupture the serenity. But Candy doesn’t do that. It just teases it in the background, instead pushing a martial rhythm to up the power. Get their Black Moon EP right here.
What else happened in January? Bowie five years gone, of course, but we don’t have time to reflect on it here. Hopefully a Bowie post soon. And Melvins and Tomahawk announced new albums – Working with God (Melvins, Feb) and Tonic Immobility (Tomahawk, March).
Did you check these three beast albums of 2020 in a previous post? Feeling stuffed? Nah, course not. IT’S CHRISTMASSSSS…. so here’s some extra musical scoff from 2020. Non-metal this time, but still rocking hard like Rudolph on ‘roids.
JEHNNY BETH: To Love Is To Live
Savages’ Jehnny Beth out-savaged her band with I’m the Man‘s distortion fest, the first single from her solo album. No wonder Atticus Ross pops up throughout. No wonder she was down to support Nine Inch Nails this year. But, as with NIN, there’s a ton more variety and nuance here, from the icy sky-scraping opener I Am to the heart-acher piano and hushed breeze of The Rooms. But it’s Heroine that steals it, the kind of skitty jazz flutter that could have blown out from Bowie’s Blackstar band. A soulful, magnetic trip.
WIRE: Mind Hive
This could be a companion to Jehnny Beth’s album. Articulate, artful and fully capable of menace but opting for classy restraint, it’s well clear of one-dimensional ruts. But this is Wire, so this is obvious. Biggest surprise? The addictive Cactused, whose backing vocals make Wire-y pop perfection.
GIL SCOTT HERON & MAKAYA McCRAVEN: We’re New Again
Gil Scott Heron’s I’m New Here is so good that its 10th anniversary spawned two new collections. One is an expanded version of the original with an extra disc of tracks. The other is this, We’re New Again: a re-imagining by jazz drummer Makaya McCraven. And if that’s not the perfect frame to look again at Gil’s poetic street wisdom, I don’t know what is. The original’s cool electronics get switched for organic beats and tough swing, especially on New York Is Killing Me and Me And The Devil. I’m no jazz buff and hadn’t heard McCraven until this. But it’s a very smart reworking of an already great album.
JULIAN COPE: Self Civil War
Yeah, this was a welcome start to the year. Back when lockdown hadn’t been invented, the Arch Drude dropped Self Civil War and, cliche alert, it was a return to form. Cope is always essential, but not all of his recent projects sustained longer interest beyond the first fawning, as noted here. But this one does. Bookended by a couple of stretched out guitar sprawl epics like wot he used to do, Self Civil War earns repeat listens. Puts a smile on, too – see You Will Be Mist and Berlin Facelift. Much needed this year.
So that’s that for another year, a few highly nutritious non-pork scratchings from 2020. And I couldn’t even write words for Clipping’s album Visions of Bodies Being Burned, because I don’t know how to.
Everyone knows it’s been a weird year. But who stepped up, musically, to make lockdown bearable and even enjoyable?
Here’s a shout out to those music-world bods who gifted us and made 2020 a hell of a lot more sane.
Of course Metallica. They released S&M 2. They did a drive-in show. They recorded stripped versions of Blackened and Would? from their homes and streamed an unplugged set. But best of all, they launched Metallica Mondays, right at the start of lockdown when we most needed some anchor points to stabilise our confused heads. What a move: put a whole gig online from any year at the same time every Monday. A weekly date. And they did this for the whole of lockdown #1, which meant about 26 consecutive weeks.
Best bits? The rambling, and always touching, Lars introduction brought a smile every time. The way Fuel kicked open the Munich 2015 gig. The House of Vans set from 2016.
But the 2019 Manchester set is the ultimate repeat view. Pissing-down rain made for many dramatic rock band visuals – the water spattered Master of Puppets drums being one, a drenched Trujillo doing Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth) straight after Rob and Kirk’s I Wanna Be Adored doodle being another (find it at 1 hour 6 minutes).
ROBERT FRIPP AND TOYAH WILCOX SUNDAY LOCKDOWN LUNCH
Did not see this coming. The diary entries that Robert Fripp put up during the height of lockdown offered an insight into his dedicated, reflective self. But these Sunday lunch performances with wife Toyah? Insight of a wholly different sort, the warmest of weekly invitations. Toyah always vibrant. And Fripp? Take your pick. Doing odd duets, cranking out Sweet Child O Mine, doing Nirvana… yes, it really happened and much more too. Got to love Fripp’s laugh at the end.
Bandcamp already Do the Right Thing by musicians. And when the pandemic threatened musicians’ survival, Bandcamp stepped in with an initiative to support them: Bandcamp Friday. For any music bought on the first Friday of the month, Bandcamp waived their fees so that artists got more of the revenue. Perfect thinking. I found myself trying to buy something (and mostly succeeding) on each of those Fridays.
PRE-ORDERING NEW MUSIC
OK, not a legend in itself because it’s a verb, but it’s a behavioural change that struck me this year and, like Bandcamp Fridays, became another Right Thing to Do.
It’s Old Man Gloom’s doing. By pre-ordering their new album(s), they said, the record label (Profound Lore) would get some money in. Pre-order and you help keep things afloat. Deal. Same with picking up a pre-order down the local record shop … get some cash their way, help them survive 2020’s financial shitstorm. If you were going to buy the album anyway, be prompt if poss.
And you know what? It’s been fun doing this. It’s revived the excitement from adolescence when you just had to buy an album the day or week it came out. It’s easy to lose that experience as an adult. Reserving some purchases for physical release day brought a bit of it back. Nice.
DANNY CAREY’S PNEUMA DRUM CAM VIDEO
If you need meditation, this is it. This video makes you feel good to be alive. HOW DOES HE DO IT??? And how can watching someone master their craft somehow make it even more mysterious than when you hadn’t seen it? The ‘reaction’ videos get addictive, especially when it’s teachers doing the reacting. This is a great reaction video, mostly for the guy’s valid reason for not getting into Tool, and then his crestfallen expression at the end. You feel for the guy and love the fact that another Tool conversion is made. This drum teacher reacts clip is another goodie. OK, must stop. Wormhole beckons. But the star of all this is Danny Carey.
BBC RADIO 6 MUSIC
Or, whatever your chosen radio station is. Because our broadcasters have been unsung heroes in this shit year as well. Programming was changed just enough to reflect the bigger communal spirit. New features brought in listeners and recognised key workers.
As a listener, at home every day, I felt like we really were in this together. And the broadcasters did a stellar job of getting the balance right without being gauche, superficial or patronising. They entertained and informed and kept spirits up. MASSIVE THANKS TO 6 MUSIC (and not just because we’re friends with this guy).
Festive greets to anyone who found this post! If you want exhaustive 2020 music tips, go to a proper source. If scant and quick is more your bag, here are three beasts that go down heavier than a frozen turkey on Christmas Day.
Ready? Let’s get stuffed. More to follow in later posts.
MR BUNGLE: The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo
You know what it’s like when you haven’t played Slayer for a while and then, when you do, you’re left grinning and pulverised by their OTT? Giddy disbelief at the relentless ferocity in a song format. And it feels so good because it’s like coming home.
This is what Mr Bungle 2020 captures too. Despite, or maybe because of, the pant-shittingly brisk pace whipped up by three core Mr Bungle mentalists and two Big Four godheads, it’s probably the feelgood album of the year. It’s frantic, vital and comes with a shitload of commitment and prep. Scott Ian said that to nail the complexity of the riffs, he broke them down into 1-2 minute parts and spent days at a time on a single fragment. Said he changes what he’s doing 93 times during Sudden Death. Said that only when he got up to 214bpm in warm-ups was he ready for the shows. Said he got arthritis from practising so hard. Coming from one of the longest serving riff meisters in thrash, this says a lot about the work that went in and you can really hear it. Theory nerd and scales master Trey Spruance had to learn how to play metal again so he could get through a track, then a gig, of intense metallic shreds.
Weirdest of all, they did all this to service a bunch of tunes by their 1986 teenage selves. Could it join the all-time thrash greats given that it’s both 30 years late AND of the time? Who knows. But the one thing you can’t escape is the love and affection oozing out of these speed metal grooves – love for the genre, for the source demo and for each other. This is not a band going through the motions.
And the more you learn about the backstory, the more magical the whole thing becomes. One day it might even become mythical: like, did it actually happen? It’s a proper sideways take on a reunion. But Bungle had the tools, brains and work ethic to do it. Treat of the year.
OLD MAN GLOOM: Seminar VIII Light of Meaning and Seminar IX Darkness of Being
The late Caleb Scofield was honoured post-humously on Cave In’s last album, Final Transmission. Now his distinctive bass force and song-crafting talent is honoured again on this double release by Old Man Gloom. Fucking hell. Every Gloom album is an event, such is their absurd mix of metalcore, drone, static, sci fi terror and primate myth-making, but these two albums hit a combined gear that shifts them nearer to their peak Seminar II-Seminar III-Christmas run. Has the loss of Scofield given the music a heavier purpose? Very likely.
Across the two discs we get the full range of OMG moods and modes, amplified by Nate Newton, Caleb Scofield and Aaron Turner all sharing vocal duties. Also getting a mic spot and shaping the music is Stephen Brodsky – not a previous Gloom member but absolutely blood family. And the Cave In touch is obvious on tracks like Final Defeat and especially Death Rhymes, an acoustic sledgehammer to the gut and a peak moment from both sets. At the other end of the OMG spectrum, By Love All Is Healed‘s lyrical sensitivity is obliterated by Turner’s sub-human roar. And so it goes on. 11-minute sprawls, one-chord hammerings, deep space terror, super short concrete blasts, aching heavy beauty – all the Old Man Gloom elements you know and love, spread across two full-lengthers. Headphone bliss.
HUNTSMEN: Mandala of Fear
Never heard of this band until Stuart Maconie played the track Ride Out on his Freakzone show. Here are my words about the track from that month’s Rewind:
‘YES. Not the opposite of no, but Yes the band – because if that early vocal doesn’t remind you of Jon Anderson, you’ve never heard Jon Anderson. And if you have heard him, you’ve never heard him over a super dense prog thrash attack that’s Rush-taut (how tightly packed is that rhythm guitar?) but way heavier. Shit me, it feels good. Of course, Huntsmen’s Anderson is part-time and gets blown into next decade by a metalcore breakout, making this one of the most exhilarating tunes of the month.’
It’s all still true. And the rest of this double-disc album? A monstrous metallic rock effort. Doom and prog tinged but not remotely downer or indulgent. Aggressive vocals and clean harmonies. Flashes of brutality balanced by space-psyche soar. Everything in its right place. If Pelican had more range AND male-female vocals, this might be where they’d end up. A proper hidden gem.
So that’s that, three masterful metalworks from 2020. Check the next couple of posts for other 2020 music highlights.
OCTOBER & NOVEMBER REWIND: NEW DAMAGE FROM MR BUNGLE, OUTSIDE LIVE FROM DAVID BOWIE, PUNK RAGE BY BLIND EYE
Halloween feels like an age ago now but it’s worth a mention because it inspired some great BBC 6 Music radio that week. Mary Anne Hobbs declared it Metal Week, which meant that shards of experimental metal shredded her mid-morning playlists – Duma, Sunn O))), Venom Prison, Divide and Dissolve, Boris and loads more. Ace to hear all that cranking out the radio before lunchtime, a proper thrill for the work-at-home brigade.
We got a couple of big-name album releases in October that we just have to celebrate, but first we’ll do our usual Rewind thing with a couple of one-off tracks that leapt pretty high these past few weeks.
DIY, punk, psych, riffs, Russian folk mystery … these are the words you’ll see in the Lucidvox Bandcamp bio. What Amok delivers is post something, but what? It rocks, but there are no hooks. Not really. Instead there’s insistent, mantra-like rhythm and momentum under rough, semi surf-metal guitars. Maybe even a painterly post-Beefheart lick in the second half. Art punk? Who knows. A curiosity piquer for sure.
PIJN: Denial (worriedaboutsatan mix)
Denial is the first track from Pijn’s 2018 album, Loss – 5 minutes of GY!BE meets Pelican-styled metallics. West Yorkshire’s worriedaboutsatan keep the weight intact but build a mechanical, moodier electro ambience that pushes Denial into the darker recesses of the night.
KLEIN: No More Shubz
Wow. Some music seems to work not in genres but in sculptures, but how can you write that without sounding like a total arse? Summery Jane’s Addiction acoustics and vocalisms dissolve into an amorphous blackened space which folds in and out of its 3D self. Like looking off the earth’s edge. How did we get here? True moment of wonder. Shubz this way.
Right, that’s the tracks done. Now for some longer forms.
MR BUNGLE: THE RAGING WRATH OF THE EASTER BUNNY DEMO
It never made sense hearing Mr Bungle described as ‘Mike Patton’s extreme metal project’ when he first joined Faith No More. As we know, each of their albums is the precocious opposite of one-genre limitations, but now we have the reason: their early The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo WAS metal. Thrash. But who knew? Barely anyone – Scott Ian excepted. For everyone else, Mr Bungle were Not Metal.
But 2020 Bungle is. This is Very, Very Metal, as the bastardisation of the logo shows. Anyone looking for Mr Bungle’s cross-genre perversions will be disappointed, but really, who’s not gonna get their oversized old-school grin on to this 56-minute batshit joyride? Mike Patton, Trey Spruance, Trevor Dunn and new recruits Scott Ian (56) and Dave Lombardo (55) annihilate – and they’re having blast. It’ll take a while for the zillion-plus riffs to sink in and the Bungle complexities to surface (surely they’re in there?), but this is one of the least expected and most welcome arrivals of the year. Does it rock? Fuck yeah! Bungle Grind is just one of many full-tilt highlights so buckle up and file it next to your Dead Cross and Anthrax maximum bpms. 100% unlike any other Mr Bungle. 100% Mr Bungle. Of course.
DAVID BOWIE: OUVREZ LE CHIEN
While Mr Bungle are in their fifties playing the music of their own youth, David Bowie was doing no such thing when he approached the big five-oh. In 1995, aged 48, he was doing his last bit of boundary-pushing with Outside and then Earthling a couple of years later.
For anyone who loves mid 90s Bowie and didn’t get to see his live shows of the time, they’re the stuff of dreams – especially the collaborative US tour with Nine Inch Nails. And so this new batch of live recordings from Dallas, October 13th, 1995, is for us. None of the Nine Inch Nails collaborations are included, but the fearless setlist is exactly what we want to hear. No Starman, no Life on Mars, no Ziggy, no Changes, none of the obvious 70s gear. Instead, six tracks from Outside, Look Back in Anger and Nite Flights. Andy Warhol, electrified into jerky, awkward full-rock action. The Man Who Sold the World, revamped bass-heavy atmospheric and miles better. Joe the Lion, roaring. And to hear Mike Garson and Reeves Gabrels lay their untamed gifts all over the show? YES. It’s a crack Bowie band, this.
(the second CD in this live series, No Trendy Rechauffe from Birmingham, December 13th, 1995, has just been released. Similar tracklist but some good switches too. Stream it if you can or check davidbowie.com for whatever comes next).
BLIND EYE: BLIND EYE
Not an October release but definitely new enough to incude is the first release from Nottingham’s Blind Eye. Devoid of all finesse, this is fast, loose punk hardcore with no smooth edges and even less polish. Early Motorhead, Discharge and Minor Threat inform the abrasive pace, except for 9-minute closer End which swerves into the kind of burnout you’d get from The Heads. Wakey wakey.
What’s that creaking and groaning? Ghosts? Vamps? Haunted floorboards?
No. It’s a barrel being scraped … welcome to a Halloween playlist that doesn’t even have a proper theme. Last year we had a bunch of creep-o cover versions, now we’re just repeating a formula – metallic spook ’em up tunes, retro-naff rock vids, seasonal nostalgia, you know the score – and beating it into a shallow grave, just like any good slasher film franchise.
But what mood are we going for this Halloween? Let’s use album cover art as yardsticks. If we get it right, we have summat that feels as good as this artwork looks:
If we get it a bit wrong:
And if it’s a disaster…
Let the music begin.
SECRET CHIEFS 3 – UR – Pesonnae: Halloween Mix III Holy disco volante! Mr Bungle have a new album out TODAY, twenty bloody years after the last one and it couldn’t be better timed, so let’s use that event to milk a Trey Spruance connection – let’s fill our sweetless buckets with this, a Season of the Glitch version of the mother of all chiller theme tunes.
CATHEDRAL – Funeral of Dreams Halloween nights are damp. And draughty. And nothing captures damp draughts quite like Cathedral. Must be the flares. Obviously, they’ve got oodles of doom crawlers in their back catalogue but that’s not what we want today – we want some sort of pulse, not flatlines, and this little tinker has an unholy blend of right-on riffage, ghost choir, church bells and general tippy-toe creepabouts. Sorted.
ADAM AND THE ANTS – Ants Invasion Nothing builds tension quite like a man running away from … ants. Does it? Erm … anyway, check the terror elements packed into this deeper Wild Frontier cut: scratchy-ominous guitar motif. Time running out. Wrong decisions. A lifeless man, a strange incision. Fear. ANTS. Fucking ants, man. Biting guitars, mind.
ELECTRIC WIZARD – Wizard in Black Dopethrone is more celebrated, but Come My Fanatics is more B-movie, and right now we’re all about the low budgets. And tiny drums. And a Hammer House Satan opening his bowels in the background. A double-wizard bonus, does it get any more Halloween than this?
HELLOWEEN – Kids of the Century Helloween aren’t remotely Halloween, except their track Halloween (which is totally Halloween but a bit long. Great intro though). Anyway, the metal pumpkins are here, as are fried egg eyes, forks, bloody hands, floating guitars and shite-knows-what. YES.
SLAYER – Gemini You can’t beat a slow thrash for maximum intensity … hang on what is this, S&M Weekly? NO. It’s Slayer, crushing bones with their super slow serial killer intro thing. No kinks in this one.
CLIPPING – Nothing is Safe You know when you watch a fire and get mesmerised by the flames, so much so that you don’t realise you’re getting closer and closer until you smell your own eyebrows burning? That’s a bit what this is like. All hail Clipping.
ALICE COOPER – (He’s Back) The Man Behind the Mask It’s hard to believe that videos like this ever got made, such is their monumental shitness. But they did, and all Halloweens from then on are eternally grateful. Aren’t we? [Smashed pottery spoiler alert: HE’S OUT OF CONTROL].
HAPPY HALLOWEEN, see you in the Sinister Funkhouse. No?
Note: This review was started and left unfinished months ago, long before Eddie Van Halen left us. But the notes informed this EVH post and some of its sentiment will be repeated here. RIP EVH.
Why are we wrapped up in Fair Warning?
This time, it’s because of Music Blues. The suicidal filth scuzz guitar draaaaag Music Blues. The Van-tithesis Music Blues. How so? Well, by my amateur reckoning, the diabolical dirge crawling out the back end of Things Haven’t Gone Well – reviewed right here – just has to be a deranged warping of Van Halen’s strangest moment, and that moment happens to be on Fair Warning. Which means it’s Fair Warning replay time. Again.
Every time I play this 31-minute 17-second gem, bought more than a decade after my first Van Halen love-in (a summer ’91 purchase of I, II, Women and Children First, and the then-new F.U.C.K.) wore off, it’s a reminder of how much it caught me off guard. Still does. It’s Shock and Awe with a smile, as the best Van Halen always is, but with less sunshine. With Fair Warning, you get no cover versions. No ballads. No cheese. No synthy rock-lite breezers. Even the artwork tells you a different mood is lurking … how un-Halen is that painting on the cover? Absolutely nothing like the action band shots of before. Fair Warning is where Van Halen Gets Serious – well, as much as they ever could – by turning the VH attack into something a little tougher and meaner …
…which brings us to track 1. Mean Street.
Fading in fast on a cosmic fretboard wave, Eddie’s unaccompanied intro swoops and hangs for a second like a UFO beaming an unearthly rock entity into your brains. GAWP TIME. But the best comes next – a standalone riff, pure A.F., bridging to an almost-funk full-band VH groove that drives HARD. No indulgence, no hanging around. Just effortlessly dextrous interplay which shows that Eddie’s liquid rhythm is easily the equal of his virtuo-so-hot leads.
For a masterclass in how to use space in a rock song, check the breakdown at 3′ 20”. It’s one of their weapons: knowing when to break down, drop out and rebuild a song is a massive part of their explosive early vibe. It’s what separates Van Halen from itself, too – those first four albums are a stylistic block, distinct from what came later. There’s a precision around each instrument that’s ultra clean and cut-throat sharp, yet there’s no bleed.
And let’s not forget that, with Mean Street, Fair Warning has a track #1 that matches the insanely high bar set by Van Halen’s previous album-starters Running With the Devil, You’re No Good, and And the Cradle Will Rock. Heavy menace radiates from each.
From that colossal start, Fair Warning doesn’t falter. “Dirty Movies” rubs sliding riffy sleaze up against Michael Anthony’s totemic bass, Sinner’s Swing! shifts like a rough Hot for Teacher prototype, and the 2′ 44” breakdown in Hear About It Later is one of many Eddie Moments – check that rhythm play, just before the solo. Sweet. Every track brings its own moments, too many to go into, so let’s skip to the un-Halen ending for a minute.
So This Is Love? is the last track of lit-up harmonies before a two-part downer finale, starting with Sunday Afternoon in the Park – the one copped by Stephen Tanner in Music Blues, the electronic instrumental that’s part symph, part dying cyborg. Really? Yeah. You can see where 1984 (the track) came from, right here in this John Carpenter-ly chill. Then One Foot Out the Door fades in with a couple of verses and two Eddie solo flurries that absolutely burn before the fade to black. It’s as if they decided halfway through that they didn’t need a proper song so they ditched the lyrics and Eddie just played the shit out of what was left, calling it a wrap in under 32 minutes.
This is what makes Fair Warning a really great Van Halen record: the unresolved ending and the out-of-character electronics that sign off half an hour of hard-rock manna. Sure, there’s a lot more to peak Van Halen than just Eddie, especially the rhythm section and vocal harmonies, but the joy you get from hearing him play gives you a lift, even when you’re already flying. It’s fucking exciting. And you’re struck by how much he plays too, never stopping but never overplaying either. Room to shine? Absolutely. Out of control? Never. Look how short the running times for those early albums are. All virtuosity is within the structure of the song.
No-one’s pretending Van Halen are the band you’d take to your grave, even though many will. But if you haven’t heard Fair Warning, either because you just never got round to it or because Van Halen are a joke to your metal sensibilities, you’re missing out. It’s Van Halen with zero weaknesses – and not even the debut managed that (hello, Ice Cream Man). If it doesn’t convince, fair enough. But to me, Fair Warning is the strongest eruption from the white-hot years.
And if it’s good enough for Music Blues …
Van Halen: Fair Warning (Warner Bros, 1981) Mean Street “Dirty Movies” Sinner’s Swing! Hear About It Later Unchained Push Comes To Shove So This Is Love? Sunday Afternoon In The Park One Foot Out The Door
EDDIE VAN HALEN PASSED AWAY YESTERDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2020.
Is it possible for the most influential guitarist of his generation, a guy whose band was one of hard rock’s biggest-selling stadium-slaying behemoths, to be overlooked?
I think maybe, and here’s why: it’s because we’re too cool. At least, we think we are. Maybe not all the time, but enough to overlook Van Halen’s musicianly credibility. And why do we do this? Because of Jump. Because of mega sales. Because of hair, smiles, girls, lights, showmanship, entertainment, innuendo, feuds, all that stuff. Because Van Halen weren’t alt, avant, art, fringe, prog, hostile, underground or anything ‘credible’ once you’d discovered thrash, grunge and the Lollapalooza bands. They were a catchy California sunshine crew at a time when Seattle matched our late adolescent moods better. So, we moved on. Sidelined the records we’d bought when younger, denied them as we got a little older. Van Halen are a band it’s easy to be a bit sniffy about.
But this isn’t cool. This is Poserville, a place we’ve all visited and maybe even stayed a while. It’s important to see the place, sure – but you’ve got to leave.
Eddie’s death might prompt more of us to leave. It might get more people to simply sink into the glory of Van Halen’s prime, whichever track, album or era it might be for each person, because there IS glory in those records. Not everything for everyone, though that may be true for some. But there is something for pretty much anyone – just gotta dig around and listen with guards dropped and scepticism binned. Then enjoy Eddie and his band’s music for what it is: highly musical, highly melodic pop-formatted rock with revolutionary playing that never gets in the way of a song. Ever. They were a song band, a popular song band, not a deep band or an issues band or a muso band, and this is why Eddie’s ability could be overlooked by the broader music world and the more tribal music fans.
Van Halen entertained and delivered a good time. They just happened to have one of the all-time rock sound innovators within. They didn’t really step outside that. Didn’t do a Beatles, didn’t do a Radiohead. But the guitar playing was already far enough ahead and the first album proves it. So do the next three.
There are many people who’ve passed away whose music means a lot more to me than Van Halen’s does, and yet I felt the need to write a little something. I think it’s because there’s conflict between what we think Van Halen is/were, which puts us off, and the pure joy (and awe) that comes from the best of their music when you play it and surrender to it. Going back to those first albums is revelatory. And they make you feel good, too. They are celebratory.
But if you need an outsider musician’s validation before giving yourself permission to cue up a Van Halen record, check Julian Cope’s review. He knew. His review might even get you to read David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat (it persuaded me and was entirely worth it).
Right then. Better get on with that review that’s stalled, unfinished. So long, Eddie.