Friday, December 18, 2015

Slayer - Reign in Blood (1986)

"Reign in Blood" is one of those albums so frequently hailed as a masterpiece that people don't even bother to really articulate why. It's been called the best metal album of all time, the best thrash album of all time, the most extreme album of all time and God knows what else. I don't agree with any of those claims, but it's still an indispensable classic, and a desert island disc to be sure.

It stands at a crossroads, as an ultimatum to all other 80's thrash bands. Behind it lie Exodus, Metallica, Testament, and Slayer's other contemporaries, having such a blast frightening parents with tales of demons, destruction and war. Then Slayer drops "Reign in Blood", their third record, with its killer opener "Angel of Death". There's no cute acoustic intro, no "spooky" samples, just a sharp, jagged guitar pummelling that sounds like somebody repeatedly being curbstomped as Tom Araya lets loose a scream that doesn't even sound human. Then he starts yelling about Auschwitz.

This was a new kind of violence. To many listeners at the time, I'm sure Slayer sounded like they might actually practice what they preached. The truth is, as any metalhead today could easily pick up, that this was still just theater and an excuse to have a mosh pit. But there was a huge difference in approach. Slayer didn't crack jokes or write cheesy anthems to metal. They just described horrors with no embellishment or context, the perfect counterpoint to music that spends not a second dicking around.

"Reign in Blood"s reputation rests primarily around two legendary songs that bookend the record: the aforementioned "Angel of Death" is a perfect thrash composition that lays the foundation for the mayhem to follow, detailing horrors that metal hadn't yet dared to express. The band plows forward with lockstep brutality as Araya describes Josef Mengele's horrifying prison camp "experiments". Then the music stops abruptly for a second, before howls of unearthly pain erupt Kerry King's and Jeff Hanneman's guitars, sounding like the screams of innocent victims. Bon Jovi it ain't.

The rest of the album is made of shorter pieces that seem to run together like some kind of thrash suite. There's no dead weight to be found, as Slayer famously intended to cut down all repetition in their song structures until nothing but the good stuff remained. I'm still blown away when midway through the second verse of "Altar of Sacrifice" the song abruptly switches riffs, like they were bored of that one after playing it last time. Most of these songs bleed together musically and lyrically, but fit together like perfect little puzzle pieces. Reign in Blood is without question one of the best constructed albums in metal history.

A word must also be said for the production, traditionally the Achilles' Heel of 80's thrash. I can't think of another thrash album until at least the mid nineties that sounded anywhere near this good. Credit Rick Rubin, genius hip hop producer and metalhead, with stepping up to the plate and finally showing the world how to actually capture the intensity of thrash on record.

And the cherry on top is the brilliant closer "Raining Blood", which actually manages to incorporate rain and thunder effects in a way that sounds scary, not cheesy. As the soundtrack to Satan marvelling at the destruction he has wrought, it can't be beat. And the song begins with one of the most indelible riffs in metal, one that I don't recommend playing to any thrash fan without being prepared for a spontaneous mosh.

More extreme, and more controversial albums would come after Reign in Blood. But at the time, thrash bands realized they were no longer going to be able to just pile atop one another searching for yet more brutal extremity. Slayer had them beat. Thus began the later era of 80's thrash which led to more ambitious and diverse albums like Death Angel's "Act III", Metallica's "And Justice for All", and Anthrax's "Persistence of Time". 

It was left to the burgeoning death metal movement to try to surpass Slayer's achievement here, and they did so by using less melody, more complicated song structures, and inhuman death growls. But while most of those records are certainly harder to listen to and digest, they're nowhere near as scary. On "Reign in Blood", you can understand the lyrics, hear the terror, and feel chills running down your spine that cookie monster vocals and constant tempo changes just can't provide. It's not the be all and end all of metal, but there's nothing quite like it.

Check out more great records in The Gallery

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick (1972)

Gerald Bostock, where are you now?
One way to hook me on a record is to give it some overwrought, ambitious concept. And indeed, there was a time when concept albums were not only popular but an absolute plague in rock music: The early 1970's, when bands like Yes and King Crimson were cranking out ambitious songs of ridiculous length with aimless solos and gratuitous key changes. In 1971, the same year Emerson, Lake and Palmer released a 20 minute song about an armadillo tank, Jethro Tull made their commercial breakthrough with the album Aqualung.

Now Jethro Tull were not really part of the progressive rock scene. They were a spunky little blues-rock band known for having a bitchin' flute player and sounding very, very English. But the songs on Aqualung contained some recurring characters and themes, so much to the band's chagrin it was immediately dubbed a concept album. Finding themselves suddenly called progressive and compared to bands they didn't see eye-to-eye with, the boys in Tull decided to have a little fun.

The result was 1972's mammoth hit record Thick as a Brick, a parody of a genre already silly enough that a lot of people didn't get the joke. It wasn't just a concept album, it was a single "song" split over two sides of a record. A fake newspaper packaged with the record claimed that the lyrics were a poem written by a troubled 8-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock, and that Jethro Tull merely set them to music. In truth the album was the product of endless jam sessions and improvisation, the best parts stitched together into an thrilling epic that barely takes a breath in 40 minutes.

Despite being a joke, Thick as a Brick has ironically aged much better than most of its brethren. One reason is that the overall piece has no real structure, but is just a bunch of little snippets tacked together with enough repeating elements that it sounds like there's a master plan. This leads to a feeling that the record could indeed go anywhere from one moment to the next. Yet the individual pieces are catchy enough that, with a little work, it could have been a nice conventional little pop album.

Yet the concept isn't the only thing setting this record apart in Tull's discography (and they've got quite a rich one). The band had never before sounded this unified, whereas before the electric and acoustic elements could sound like two bands colliding. And the production was crisp, colorful and perfect, miles beyond the terribly muddy sound of Aqualung. It sounds great even by today's standards (hell, you rarely find records with this good of a dynamic range now, but that's another rant).

And all of that nerdery aside, you can't beat the fun, rollicking songwriting, with so many asides and left turns that it rarely registers that you're listening to a 40 minutes song. That is, except when the band wants you to: one of the funniest moments is near the beginning of side 2, where the band seems to repeatedly lose interest and trail off, finally playing the first few bars of the song again, just to see if you're still paying attention. “Progressive Rock” is virtually never this fun, and while Tull have made several great records (Benefit is another desert island pick), if you only ever hear one, it should be Thick as a Brick.

Check out more great records in The Gallery

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Gallery - 50 Great Albums to Start From

Want some great music? Start here! This is a good scatter-pattern of the music that's inspired me, challenged me, or been the soundtrack to my life over the years. It was ridiculously hard getting down to a list of 50... hell, it was hard getting the list below 100. So I set a few rules:

1) One album per band.
(Removing all of the Queen and Blue Oyster Cult records made this much easier)

2) Always choose "favorite" over "best".
(Sorry, Meat Puppets II!)

3) No Metallica.
(They may belong here, but they don't need the help)

This isn't "The 50 Greatest Albums of All Time", and there are tons of great artists and albums that aren't here. But every album here comes with a ringing recommendation from me, and I hope that counts for something.

I'm going to make it my personal project to write a review of every album here, then if that goes well, maybe I'll start fleshing out the list with more. Any of these picks strike a nerve? Give a shout in the comments and I'll try to write about the albums you care about first!

Here we go, in alphabetical order... Enjoy!

Artist Title
Bad Religion Generator
The Beatles The Beatles (White Album)
Jello Biafra and D.O.A. Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors
Black Sabbath Black Sabbath
Blue Oyster Cult Mirrors
The Buggles The Age of Plastic
Captain Beyond Captain Beyond
The Cars The Cars
Cryptopsy None So Vile
Daft Punk Discovery
DEVO Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!
Dire Straits Brothers in Arms
Eiffel 65 Europop
Elastica Elastica
Electric Light Orchestra Time
Fleetwood Mac Rumours
Flotsam & Jetsam High
Peter Gabriel So
Goldfinger Goldfinger
Green Day Dookie
Incubus S. C. I. E. N. C. E.
Jethro Tull Thick as a Brick
Juluka African Litany
Kraftwerk Radio-Activity
Lost Horizon A Flame to the Ground Beneath
Meat Puppets Too High to Die
Megadeth Killing is My Business… and Business is Good!
Mr Bungle Mr Bungle
Only Living Witness Innocents
The Orb The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
Owl City Ocean Eyes
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits
The Police Synchronicity
Queen Queen II
R.E.M. Monster
Rage Against the Machine Rage Against the Machine
Silverchair Diorama
Slayer Reign in Blood
Spacehog The Chinese Album
Alexander “Skip” Spence Oar
Spin Doctors Turn It Upside Down
Cat Stevens Tea for the Tillerman
The Streets A Grand Don't Come for Free
They Might Be Giants Flood
Tool ├ćnima
Type O Negative Bloody Kisses
Kanye West Yeezus
X Japan Jealousy
“Weird Al” Yankovic Off the Deep End

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Great Albums: Boston - "Boston" (1976)

Years of overplay on classic rock radio basically killed Boston for many, but now that nobody listens to the radio it's time to rediscover one of the greatest debut records ever recorded. I mean, there's a reason this stuff was played to death. One-man-band Tom Scholz's custom guitar equipment and production perfectionism led him to create a truly distinctive guitar sound: sweet as candy, but overdriven with distortion and multi-tracked into the stars. To be fair, there were other people in Boston, most notably lead singer Brad Delp, but the band was primarily a studio project, and Scholz's baby the whole way.

Boston is one of a rare few records where literally every song is not only great, but a potential radio single. If you're too young to know "More Than a Feeling", pull that up on YouTube right now. It's the band's sonic manifesto: electric guitar driven, optimistic good-times anthems, with acoustic guitars to add a hint of nostalgia, married to a never ending flow of ear-wormy melodies. The perfect sound for a kegger, a road-trip into outer space, or (in my case) a long night of pinball at an arcade or bar somewhere in America.

And the "deep cuts" on the album (kind of funny, given that they're all radio hits) shake things up nicely. "Foreplay / Long Time" has the requisite epic organ solo and multi-part structure to prove "heavy rock" credentials. The boogie of "Smokin'" flat out rocks, and while the myth-building lyrics of "Rock and Roll Band" are utterly cheesy, that's part of their charm.

"Let Me Take You Home Tonight" is the AM-radio ballad of the bunch, notable now for how sleazy every 70's love song sounds to modern ears. But my favorite track of all is "Hitch a Ride", a declaration of adventure-seeking that climaxes with Boston's most beautiful instrumental passage... and a single manly tear from yours truly.

Boston were the rare hit-makers that made record producers reach for their wallets, but who had real heart, soul and artistry behind the glossy surface. "Boston" the album is one of the all time greats, and few hit records from the 1970's have aged as well. May new generations of fans continue to discover its charms!