Saturday, 18 August 2018

Sheik Yerbouti - Frank Zappa

Provenance: In a not insignificant number of ways I am my father's son, and nowhere is this more evident than my tastes when they edge towards the weirder end of the popular music spectrum. White Noise, Gryphon and today's subject - Frank Zappa - all came into my orbit as a consequence of my dad's listening habits.

In the instance of Sheik Yerbouti, I bought this to signal a small amount of independence. How so? Because dad didn't own this album. I distinctly recall as a youngster being impressed by cover art of both Overnite Sensation and Hot Rats, I thought the guy's name was cool (it sounds like a freakin' laser) and some of the songs made me laugh. Thus when I was older and casting around for my own bit of Zappanalia, I went for an album that was considered one of his more 'hard rock' efforts, as per my own inclinations at the time. Hence Sheik Yerbouti.

May I drift a little here? When it comes to worst fanbases of all time, you have to consider those of the Grateful Dead, Britney Spears and Pantera. They all have their demerits, but for me nothing comes close to being stuck with a Zappa fan when the topic of conversation is Zappa. I've had my head forcibly banged for me watching Iron Maiden, met some Megadeth fans who were happy to show me their Neo-Nazi tattoo collections and saw not one but three fights break out within spitting distance during a Madness gig. I'd happily endure all that again, and then some, if I didn't have to spend another moment in the presence of a Frank Zappa fan (my dad excluded, who is the epitome of the exception that proves the rule).

Review: Well, this is a bit of a disappointment.

I can imagine that, aged sixteen, I found some of this stuff funny. However, I've never found scatalogical humour particularly engaging, and any youthful proclivity I may have had towards it has certainly dimmed with age. In terms of my Zappa listening these days, it tends towards the more instrumental side, Mothers of Invention era cuts or Hot Rats (because 'Willie the Pimp  features the greatest violin riff in rock music). Sheik Yerbouti has slipped to the bottom of the pile, and giving it a listen for this review has done little to rehabilitate it.

You know, 'I Have Been In You' might have elicited the odd yuk back when Peter Frampton was a ubiquitous presence in the homes of Middle America, but pastiche is a dodgy thing to pull off at the best of times. It's saying something that the parodical Bob Dylan harmonica stylings on 'Flakes' is the highlight of 'Flakes'. And revisiting the notion of jokes ageing poorly - whew - 'Jewish Princess' (yep) and 'Bobby Brown (Goes Down)' (a discotheque staple on continental Europe, which is enough to make me a full on Brexiter) would've surely been offensive forty or so years ago. In 2018 they come across as positively Neanderthal with their depictions of Jewish women and homosexuality, respectively. A former English Literature teacher of mine once felt moved to describe Zappa as a 'poet'.

I'm happy to say that, amongst the more overtly comedic songs, one still holds up - 'Dancin' Fool' is a stabby little lampoon of the disco scene that works through a combination of splenetic observational humour and metrical tricksiness, the latter effectively turning it into a disco track that can't be danced to. 'Tryin' To Grow a Chin' is also a lot of fun, drummer Terry Bozzio providing a demented vocal. Plus I like false endings, and this song's got one (sorry to spoil it for you, folks - but are you really going to listen to Sheik Yerbouti any time soon?).

Here's the frustrating part; the first track that appears to privilege musicianship above cheap thrills, the instrumental 'Rat Tomago', hits the mark. The push-pull percussion, jazzy keys and wild guitar improvisations afford a glimpse into realms beyond this album's - consciously applied - limitations. Oh, enjoyed that music, did ya? Never mind, here's some wisecracks about fisting. With Sheik Yerbouti we've reached a point in Zappa's career where he needed to do the stoopid stuff (and take it out on tour) to fund his more serious compositions, which had become prohibitively expensive, especially where recording orchestral works were concerned. At least, that was the line trotted out at the time. Who knows? Maybe that was the case, but then again maybe he just got a kick out of stigmatising homosexuality via the medium of comedy song.

As I have intimated, there are hints of a better (and shorter) album here; all the instrumental cuts are great, with 'The Sheik Yerbouti Tango' coming out on top because it sounds just that little bit out of control. Zappa fans might scream that their formalist hero knew exactly what he was doing, but I think it's sometimes pretty neat to hear the seams of the music. (Isn't this where improvisation becomes truly interesting? When instead of falling back on the rock / jazz / blues playbook of licks, they take their instrument on a journey that teeters between inspiration and failure?). Of the 'straighter' rock stuff, 'Broken Hearts Are For Assholes' has a certain appealing mania to it, even if it does descend into a coda about 'poop chutes'. 'Baby Snakes' is here and gone far too quickly, which is a shame because it's a little gem of hard-edged surrealism. 'City of Tiny Lites' really kicks out the jams - a spacey and strangely soulful number that skips along on busy percussion and a rubbery bass line. The guitar solo is fucking badass too.

I will say this - aside from the more objectionable extremes of Zappa's lyric writing, I enjoyed the experience of revisiting Sheik Yerbouti more than I had expected. It's also told me something about myself, and the ageing process. When I was in my teens, I would often skip the 'boring' instrumental tracks so I could get to the next chucklefest. Now, it would be the other way around. Once upon a time, this would've been my favourite Zappa album because it had some rawk 'n' roll on it, but now I gravitate towards his jazzier output (which coincides with a general awakening to jazz as a genre, I guess). Anyway, Sheik Yerbouti certainly treats the ol' lugholes to some interesting snippets of music, but you have to ask yourself whether it's worth wading through all the snark and calculated dumbassery to reach.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Firepower - Judas Priest

Provenance: I have every goddamn Judas Priest album so I was always going to get this bad boy the day it came out.

Review: There's no two ways about this, Firepower is fucking sick. Although it sports the worst album cover since Painkiller I would happily frame this and stick it in the Louvre. Why? Because it's a piece of Judas Priest ephemera and therefore in my desiccated pea brain is automatically elevated to the status of high art.

However, at the very least it gives you a flavour of what Firepower is all about, i.e., indomitable mecha-monster war machines kicking the entire world's ass. This odd strain particular to Priest - like that of Saxon's obsession with public transport, or Iron Maiden's godforsaken attempts to ram imperial history down one's throat - began by my estimation on 1978's Stained Class (coincidentally, the album that debuted their current logo) with 'Exciter' and has continued via 'Grinder' and 'The Sentinel' before reaching its apogee on the incredible Painkiller, which positively swarmed with these hellbeasts. You know where else you'll find another menagerie of the infernos? Right here on Firepower, muthas.

Whilst I'm a big fan of predecessor Redeemer of Souls, with the growing influence of newest band member Richie Faulkner (who replaced founder KK Downing) this is a far more focused collection. It starts off as every Priest album should - a dirty great riff and a Rob Halford scream - and barely lets up for a moment over the ensuing 58 minutes (another trait it shares with Painkiller).  The one-two punch of the title track and the gloriously bonkers 'Lightning Strike' ranks up their as my favourite Priest opening salvos.

Of course, this is still a Judas Priest album and so the lyric sheet is the usual casserole of bogglesome ineptitude, but it doesn't really matter. Even though little makes sense from one line to the next, it's all suitably pumped-up and aggressive. A good Priest album does not invite the listener to embark upon close textual analysis; instead, it invites the listener to punch things. If your fist doesn't reflexively clench during the choruses of 'Children of the Sun' (which may or may not be about conflict in the Middle East) or 'Flame Thrower', then I can't help you, son.

Speaking of 'Flame Thrower' - "You're on the run / From the stun / Of the flamethrower!" - that's the chorus, genuinely. Looks stupid upon the page? Cool, because it also sounds stupid coming out of my stereo, but it's also perfect. I wouldn't replace a single word because it sounds totally bad-ass in Rob Halford's hands (or mouth, to be more accurate), peculiar inflections and all. Honestly, although he's mostly sacked off the screaming these days, Halford's still an absolute force. He brings an entirely unearned authority and gravitas to songs about robots having a pagga with mankind.

And look - although I'm clowning on some aspects of the Priest experience, it's done from a place of affection. It's taking longer than usual to type out this review as I've frequently paused to air-guitar or headbang to my favourite passages, which are legion. There's true craft on display here; 'Lightning Strike', 'Necromancer' and 'Children of the Sun' are magnificent stompers from the first half of the album; on the home straight you've got 'Flame Thrower' and 'Lone Wolf', which would be highlights on any album, along with the mighty 'Spectre'. Although Richie Faulkner has made a point of calling Firepower a forward-thinking album, some of the best bits here are redolent of past triumphs - 'Spectre' being a case in point. A nasty prowler with chewy guitar, thematically it's a direct descendent of 'The Ripper' from second album Sad Wings of Destiny and is all the more enjoyable for it.

I don't really know what more there is to say. If you love heavy metal, Firepower is a distillation of all that was fun and magnetic from its classic era, wrapped up in crisp modern production. If metal is a genre you don't care for, it'll come across as exactly the kind of leather 'n' rhinestone clad nonsense you're no doubt striven to avoid. More fool you, in my not so humble opinion - go listen to Father John Misty or just fuck off, whatever.