VAN HALEN: Fair Warning

BEFORE THE CABARET: A DARKER TURN

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 Wellreviewed 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.

Fair Warning: less cheer

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

MUSIC BLUES: Things Haven’t Gone Well

HARVEY MILK SOLO MAKES MUSIC FOR BREAKDOWNS

An absolute hulk of a slow-chord surge opens the album in short but wildly heroic style. 91771 is slow enough to be doom but nowhere near sombre enough as it pulls you into the euphorically funereal, if that makes any sense. Drone and sustain pumps your veins with noisy nutrients. Feels good.

This is Music Blues, the solo project of Stephen Tanner, Harvey Milk bassist. 2014’s Things Haven’t Gone Well is his first, and so far only, solo record.

Shame. Things Haven’t Gone Well belongs in anyone’s sludge-noise collection, down at the squalid end where the fuck-ups and failures hang out, and Tanner trades on two strands of guitar-driven dronedoom: one is total pessimism, the kind that beats you down with airless oppression. The other is total pessimism piss-streaked with rock-ist uplift, like 91771 (Tanner’s birth date), and it’s those rock-acknowledging downers that make the record work, though you gotta be patient. Aside from those, a couple of short clips from the Tom Waits School of Freak keep the album broken and fragmented. There are no vocals.

Things Haven’t Gone Well … no shit

The autobiographical PREMATURE CAESAREAN REMOVAL DELIVERY follows straight on from 91771’s colossal awe, but the euphoric touch has evaporated to leave skeletal chords slamming. HOPELESSNESS AND WORTHLESSNESS and FAILURE’s Sunn O))) stylings lift the mood not one bit, and wedged between them is TRYING AND GIVING UP. Get through the defeated first drag and you’ll hear a guitar morph from death-slow one-chord reps to a rough-as-fuck blues lick drowning in diesel dregs. It’s the slowest, grimiest 12-bar you’ve never heard. ZZ Top on a dying battery.

Seven tracks in, you might feel there’s not much to grab hold of. You’d be right. 91771 and a mutant Texan blues tip is scant return.

But IT’S NOT GOING TO GET BETTER is where it picks up (relatively) after the ghostly DEATH MARCH interlude. Here we get guitar breaks and a real human touch instead of blackout basement isolation. Thick, sludgy beauty with light. It crushes, but it’s the crush of a communal gig pile-on.

Then the big one: TREMENDOUS MISERY SETS IN. Tremendous misery – nice. TMSI is final proof that, even on an album as depressed and damaged as this one seems, Stephen Tanner has a Propensity to Rock Out and here his Harvey Milk spilleth over in that Corrosion of Conformity-channelling-Thin Lizzy way, but inebriated, messy and mournful. ’tis majesty on a slow repeat. Then THE PRICE IS WRONG conquers all with a massive Rock ending, completing the album’s transformation from No Hope to Slight Hope.

The closing BONUS TRACK just has to be a Van Halen tribute – not Massive Hits Halen but Weirdo Least Halen, aka Sunday Afternoon in the Park from their toughest (best?) Fair Warning album.

Which means we’ve got a noise rock record that ploughs mental breakdown and dark autobiography, touches on ZZ Top and CSNY (Teach the Children) and ends with a Van Halen freakball …

… sounds about right. Things Haven’t Gone Well comes across as a journey through grief – it nails the slow, draining, disorienting feeling and physicality that grief brings, yet it’s distracted and sketchy too. Music Blues might be depression as expression, but in the end Tanner can’t restrain his need for primal oversized riffs. You can’t keep that down.

Things Haven’t Gone Well (2014, Thrill Jockey Records)
91771
Premature Caesarean Removal Delivery
Teach the Children
Hopelessness and Worthlessness
Trying and Giving Up
Great Depression
Failure
Death March
It’s Not Going to Get Better
Tremendous Misery Sets In
The Price is Wrong
Bonus Track

A pessimistic best-of-2014

REWIND DECEMBER: DC revivals, a cellar-bound phoenix and the heaviest music blues … things haven’t gone well

Festive greets and merry new years to anyone casting an eye over this page, even if you’ve got here by mistake. What tunes are you spinning over the hols? I don’t know about you but this time of year always brings about a change in listening choices over here. Plenty of storyteller stuff – Bob Dylan, Mark Lanegan, Tom Waits, Nick Cave – piling up alongside some warming Americana, cooling Icelandic/Scandi moods like Bjork and Cult of Luna, and an unhealthy dose of classic rock/metal by the bands we (I) grew up listening to, aka the DNA years.

And now that there’s an album called Rock or Bust grabbing a few acres of coverage in the music press, it’s AC/DC that are top-of-mind in the old band stakes. When was the last time you played For Those About to Rock end-to-end? Can’t remember? Then here’s what to do: crack open that blackengold gatefold, stand in front of the speakers and let its ten-track purity fire you back to simpler times. Sure, there are a couple of fillers, but with such stellar fare as Evil Walks, COD, Inject the Venom and Spellbound pressed into the wax, not to mention the triple A-grade quality of THAT title track, you’ve got a dead cert for a winter/Christmas playlist. Snowballed is even more of a seasonal bonus.

Before nominating a best-of-2014, what else has been going on?

Crippled Black Phoenix were in Oxford at the Cellar this month for a gig that was, sadly, a mite under-attended … by the band. To quote Commander Justin Greaves on this, the eve of a European tour:

‘You might have noticed we’re a couple short. The guitarist and bass player didn’t show up to rehearsals, they’re not here so … we’re gonna have to mix it up a bit. No guitar solos tonight. Well, not many.’ He introduces Arthur (?) on bass, who’s had to learn the songs in an afternoon.

Does it ruin the mood? Nah. I mean yeah, the solos are a soaring highlight when the Phoenix are in full flight (as they were at the Wheatsheaf a couple of years back) but, even without them, CBP’s modus operandi – expansive jams, Meddle-esque Floyd, Isis weight – is impossible to resist and a damn good show. Let’s hope they get everything resolved.

Right then. Best of 2014. It’s top 50 end-of-year mania in the real press, but we’re gonna cut that down by, I dunno, 47 or so, and mention a couple of highlights.

Earth: Primitive and Deadly. Mentioned this briefly <a title="REWIND<in the last Rewind so no need to witter further here. Immerse yourself.

Robert Plant and the Sensational Spaceshifters: Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. The Spaceshifters’ time is now, as anyone who saw their Glastonbury or Glastonbury Abbey or BBC Maida Vale gigs knows – they’re in the zone and having a ball with their kaleidoscopic tapestry of the trad, the tripped and the trance via north Africa, north America, desert blues and, of course, Plant’s own sprawling roots and thirst for musical adventure. With a truly global spirit at work, they’ve grabbed Mighty Rearranger’s cross-culture essence and given it some serious float. Having read how the band put this record together, I bet there are hours of outtakes, loops, offcuts and jams that would be mindblowing … what do you reckon? Multi-disc Lullaby Sessions for 2015? We can but wish.

Time for our last 2014 highlight in this festive break.

Did someone say ‘season of good cheer’?

Hardly. Not with an album called Things Haven’t Gone Well. Not with track titles like Failure, It’s Not Going to Get Better, Hopelessness and Worthlessness, and everybody’s favourite Christmas knees-up, Tremendous Misery Sets In.

Welcome to Music Blues, the 2014 solo project by Harvey Milk’s Stephen Tanner.

Is he taking the piss with all that? Probably not. The album was written during times of personal crises and depression, but despite the none-more-bleak titles and the squalid cover art, there’s triumph and – dare we say – optimism in the widescreen wrecking-ball slams metered out by Tanner’s Harvey-heavy slo-mo instrumental surges. If the hugeness of Boris (the massive bonus track on Smile, say) and Melvins (Lysol) has you grinning with jaw-dropped loonacy, Music Blues will surely do the same.

Of course, there are bags of albums missed this year but so what? Can’t catch ’em all, there’s always next year.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!