Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Fat Of The Land - The Prodigy

Provenance: As was the case with ZZ Top's Recycler, my exposure to The Fat of the Land came about thanks to my mum's employment at a library. This time around it wasn't an old chewed-up tape but a CD that had to back, so I recorded it onto cassette along with Led Zeppelin IV.

Why did I request this album? Possibly because of all the brouhaha around third single 'Smack My Bitch Up'. The controversy surrounding the song made its way to Parliament, although the subject of early day motion 565, proposed by newly-minted Labour MP Barry Gardiner, was actually the billboard campaign for the singles. Signatories to this motion included Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.

The video, directed by a former drummer from the black metal band Bathory, got the curtain-twitchers of Middle England going too. You can see why. There's a good article on the Louder website about the infamous video's genesis; my favourite detail, given the signatories of the early day motion, is that the model playing the protagonist was called Teresa May. Then there was 'Firestarter', which also got talked about in Parliament on the basis that its video might incite arson, possibly in the same way that Link Wray's 1958 instrumental 'Rumble' was considered a likely tinderbox for street gang violence.

The fuss, especially around 'Firestarter', all seems impossibly tame now. Hell, even dad-rock idiot and cow tongue graftee Gene Simmons recorded a version of 'Firestarter', which you can see here if you truly hate yourself that much.

Review: I'll start by saying I had to listen to something other than the Prodigy to cleanse my palate after checking that Gene Simmons link worked. I just don't think I could've given 'Firestarter' a fair shake otherwise. Anyway, I'm not a massive dance fan, but that's okay, because the Prodigy were always the most 'rock' sounding of that tribe. Certainly, the songs on Fat of the Land follow something closely resembling the rock music I was almost exclusively listening to at the time. Hell, the band did an L7 cover and were even fronted by Keith Flint, a kind of John Carpenter re-imagining of Vyvyan from The Young Ones - that's cool, right? Right?

Yet despite the guitar hooks on 'Breathe' and the rapping on 'Diesel Power', it's unmistakably a confection put together through the tried and tested technique of melding a clutch of samples with some big beats and studio magic. So although 'Smack My Bitch Up' became notorious for its subject matter, its true charms are to be found in its barrelling percussion and Shahin Badar's beautiful, wordless vocal (apparently based off of a track by Sheila Chandra, a remarkable singer in her own right whose voice has sadly succumbed to Burning Mouth Syndrome).

Listening to this from the perspective of 2019, it's odd to hear just how much dynamic range exists in the music. Had I misremembered how loud Fat of the Land was? Or have contemporary studio practices in popular music rendered such notions as dynamics the preserve of nerds and wankers? Much pop music in the present day sounds like it packs out every inch of aural real estate with grey noise, giving the track enough heft that it, no doubt, 'slaps' in one's ear-pods. Friends, on a proper stereo system, it sounds shit. Not Fat of the Land - certainly, 'Serial Thrilla', 'Diesel Power' and 'Fuel My Fire' sound chunky, but there's good definition between all their elements, and a track like 'Funky Shit' really shifts around dynamically. Forgive me for pulling a Horatio Caine here, but you could say...that these songs really 'breathe'.

Oh, and my favourite track on Fat of the Land is the one most obviously wedded to hip-hop, 'Diesel Power'. Kool Keith, who was someone Liam Howlett sampled on a few occasions, spits a wonderfully aggressive lyric over a bombastic, relentless backing track that reeks of smoke and adrenaline. Bottle it up and sell it as psych-up juice - it's what I listen to in the gym if I want to try and lift something moderately heavy more than a few times.

Actually - the closer I listen, the more I'm tempted to say that it's a dance-metal album fused to the spirit of Afrika Bambaataa. Perhaps it's just the bowl of chili I had earlier (a dish which, it has been claimed in a court of law, can mess with your mind) but to me there's a direct thread between Fat of the Land and Bambaataa's seminal Afro-Teutono-futurist floor filler 'Planet Rock'? Fat of the Land might be its gobby, steroid-addled British nephew, but a blood relation nonetheless. Yet Howlett was determinedly pursuing a singular vision, and its exciting to hear the symphony of cymbals he created in the coda to 'Narayan'; and its only on today's listen that I became fully conscious of the huge heartbeat bass drum at the core of 'Firestarter' (a favourite amongst my generation, not least because an instrumental version featured on the Playstation version of Wipeout 2097 - a kind of cyberpunk Mario Kart if that helps orientate younger readers).

Yeah, Fat of the Land was - and remains - the absolute business. I've got a couple of other Prodigy albums, and they're great; but this is the one where sonic invention is married to a pop sensibility, enabling even a denim 'n' leather bore like me to enjoy it from front to back. A triumph.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Double Live Assassins - W.A.S.P.

Provenance: I think my brother bought this for me, either for Christmas or my birthday a few years back. These events are mere days apart, so I trust he forgives me the inexactitude.

Review: Before I go in on the album, I want to share a W.A.S.P.-related anecdote with you. At Sweden Rock Festival one year I had gotten to chat with Zinny Zan of Zan Clan fame (I use the term advisedly). I was introduced to the band by the girlfriend of guitarist Rob Love, who I had stood next to during their set.

I talked with Zinny about his band's (excellent) album, the fortunes of QPR (about which he was surprisingly knowledgeable) and what-have-you. He then he asked if I wanted to meet Randy Piper, formerly of W.A.S.P.

Well.

Let's just say that Zinny's congeniality was only matched by Piper's intoxication, and the latter took an instant dislike to me despite the fact I'd not said anything beyond hello.

"You're a pretty small guy," he snarled, "I could fucking kill you." At which I guess he attempted to prove a point by strangling me in the manner redolent of Homer's frequent throttlings of Bart. It all got out of hand, and Zinny (also a pretty small guy) had to pull him off me, but not before someone took a photo on their phone. Of course, I tell my friends that Randy Piper tried to asphyxiate me - and of course they didn't believe me. But here's the kicker: after the festival's over we're relaxing in Malmo, eating pizza on the outdoor terrace of a restaurant, and I'm still getting ribbed about the alleged incident when the bloke who took the photo strolled past. After some initial confusion I got the guy to bring the photo up and - lo and behold - there's Piper with his shovel hands around my throat.

Anyway - Randy Piper left W.A.S.P. in 1986 and this live set is from 1997, so he doesn't feature at all. However, equally large guitarist and part-time sasquatch Chris Holmes does, along with frontman Blackie Lawless, current bassist Mike Duda and Metal Church drummer Stet Howland (whose Wikipedia page lists Gene Krupa, the Muppets and Hulk Hogan amongst his influences).

So - on to Double Live Assassins! Well, its one hour and forty minutes of W.A.S.P. doing their thing and features not one but two medleys. Like the wretched, wedding-plaguing 'Grease Megamix', the first one smashes together four - actually quite good - songs into one awkward, unsatisfactory whole. 'On Your Knees' is a genuine corker in the schlock-metal genre and deserves better treatment than this. W.A.S.P.'s take on Ray Charles' 'I Don't Need No Doctor' is hardly the definitive version but gets a the lion's share of play here. Again, 'Hellion' and 'Chainsaw Charlie' are solid but receive short shrift. The worst aspects of this unholy mishmash are the transitions between the songs, which are dreadful. The concluding riff of one section is crunched into the start of the next with seemingly no heed paid to either key or tempo. It honestly sounds like some poor schlub just cut bits of full performances together because I can't believe the band performed the medley live in the way its presented here.

At least the rest of disc one has enough to commend this. The sound is commendably raw and nasty, although the drums seem too loud and guitars are a tad muddy. However, neither of these quibbles are able to dent the power of both 'Wild Child' and the impressively-titled 'Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)', the latter of which Lawless has vowed never to perform again thanks to his Christian faith. It's a shame because it's an anthem; let it never be said that Lawless can't find his way around a chorus. Like an X-rated Paul Stanley, Lawless previews 'Animal' by asking the crowd if anybody "came here tonight looking for some...pussy? Does anyone here - fuck like a beast?!" I imagine it wasn't covered at Lilith Fair, let's put it that way.

And so it goes - there's enough meat on disc one to keep me happy. Continuing the theme of punchy, hooky metal stompers, we're treated to dirtbag classics such as 'L.O.V.E. Machine' (I l.o.v.e. this track), 'I Wanna Be Somebody', 'Kill Your Pretty Face' et al. Ya know, even with the medley, I would've been happy with this as a single-disc lie album. Even the tracks from the then-contemporaneous Kill.Fuck.Die, shorn of their industrial trappings, sound cool.

No, the problem for me is the inordinate amount of space given on disc two to The Crimson Idol, and album that steadfastly refuses to reveal its charms to me. It's hard to beat the jab-cross of 'Blind in Texas' and 'The Headless Children', but unfortunately we're then bogged down with both 'The Idol' and then a fucking Crimson Idol medley. I know of some people who consider Crimson Idol to be W.A.S.P.'s crowning achievement, and let me tell you folks, these people are plain wrong. The standout song from the album is 'Chainsaw Charlie', which has already featured in the first goddamn medley. To make matters worse, Crimson Idol is a concept album. I'll leave it at that.

Otherwise - look, it's a fine live heavy metal album. Some of the backing vocals sound like they received some, ahem, studio enhancement but that charge can be levied against Live and Dangerous, Unleashed in the East and KISS Alive!, all of which are widely acknowledged to be up there in the firmament of hard rock recordings. Double Live Assassins isn't quite on that level; W.A.S.P. are a little too quotidian an act to reach those dizzying heights, despite the ballwashing this album receives from some quarters. It's certainly no Live at Leeds, but hell, if you want to headbang along to a heavy metal cover of 'The Real Me', Double Live Assassins is the one for you.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Straight Shooter - Bad Company

Provenance: This dates back to the time when I was first seriously getting into rock music. I am fairly certain my knowledge of Bad Company extended to two songs - 'Can't Get Enough' and 'Feel Like Makin' Love', the latter of which appears on Straight Shooter. As with approximately one third of Bad Company's recorded output, these songs are about makin' it with your old lady (NB: my decision to replace the 'g' in 'making' with an apostrophe is apt as this practice is rife in the Bad Company discography. It demonstrates that they place fast and loose with the rules, see).

Review: I have now reached the age where every contemporary young pop star looks the same. Every single one. And they all have names that, although ostensibly signifying plural nouns, only serve to make them sound like posh butlers from Edwardian farces. It's too much for me. I made a half-hearted attempt to keep up with the grime scene but really, I'm much more comfortable with Ghost because they wear funny masks and sound like Blue Oyster Cult.

However, you shouldn't ascribe any value judgement to what I've just said, as gazing back to the early 1970s I'm amazed anybody could tell Bad Company apart from Deep Purple, Nazareth, Foghat, Uriah Heep, Argent and the rest. It's a blur of denim, hair and yellowed teeth. Rhythm sections appeared to be about forty despite being twenty-five, sometimes people wore kaftans and overall everyone looked immensely shit. A torrid time for fashion, then, but also for music. How anybody endured the live drum / guitar / organ / theremin solos of the era is absolutely beyond me. The tolerance for interminable jamming was a gift to the myriad mediocrities of the time, their every blooz-flavoured squeak or parp given to be evidence of their musical genius.

Bad Company had the awful dress sense, the blues rock stylings and the voguish predilection for cliched guitar solos but on Straight Shooter things are kept relatively tight. The music itself is pretty unimaginative but elevated by the presence of Paul Rodgers, who is one of the great rock voices these islands have ever produced. The ease with which he shifts between gravelly aggression and blue-eyed soul cooing is demonstrated by the rollicking opener 'Good Lovin' Gone Bad' (note the apostrophe) and its neighbour 'Feel Like Makin' Love'. The latter is a rather effective country-tinged power ballad that has, (un)fortunately been irreparably damaged for me thanks to the rendition by Ned Gerblansky that appears on Chef Aid: the South Park Album.

The best song on the album is 'Weep No More', which sounds like a hangover from one of the later Free albums. Tasty string arrangements bump up against a verse driven by a jaunty piano and heartfelt singing. It's a fine rock song, which more than can be said for much of what follows. 'Shooting Star' tries to replicate the rootsy verse / power-chord chorus combination of 'Feel Like Makin' Love' but its married to a lyric that is the most maudlin crap I've come across in quite some time and carries on the fine tradition of 70s navel-gazing that witnessed a slew of bands writing about the perils and pitfalls of becoming very famous and rich. Poor babies!

About the only listenable track on side to is 'Deal With the Preacher', which, although it's about makin' it with your old lady, has enough lead in its pencil to pass muster. The guitar riff in the verse is the strongest on the whole album, pugnacious and dirty. Rodgers yelps and emotes in all the right places, making the finished article a very satisfying hard rocker indeed. Had Bad Company decided to cruise to the finish line with a few more like that I'd be inclined to review Straight Shooter more favourably.

Therefore it's a genuine disappointment that Bad Company fill the home stretch with anaemic bilge like 'Wild Fire Woman', 'Anna' and 'Call On Me'. Despite superficially sounding very different, all are infected with the same strain of 'will-this-do?'-itis. 'Wild Fire Woman' (about makin' it with your old lady) plods along without much heft or purpose. 'Anna' is insultingly poor, a torch song that contrives to sound more like a nursery rhyme than a tender paean to the track's titular subject ("I found me a simple woman..." - fucking embarrassing). 'Call On Me' commits to nothing other thanbeing both boring and lethargic, and has no business stretching out to six minutes. Not even Rodgers can salvage these stinkers, and on 'Anna' he even sounds a bit pitchy.

As an epilogue to this I will say that I caught Paul Rodgers live at a Dutch rock festival in 2004 and he was outstanding. He both looked and sounded incredible, which is definitely not a given for many artists of his vintage. Even though the 2019 version of me can't quite discern the charms of Straight Shooter that were apparent to me in 2001, nevertheless I retain an affection both for the album and Bad Company. If you're a classic rock aficionado give it a spin, especially if you're tryin' to make it with your old lady.