Sunday, 19 April 2020

Fire Down Under - Riot

Provenance: No big story behind this purchase, I just happened to read about this album and it sounded up my street.

Review: Before anything else is said, can I please ask what the fuck that abomination on the front cover is supposed to me? It appears to be some kind of ghastly Dr Moreau hybrid man-seal, but for the life of me I can't fathom why it's gracing the cover of a hard rock album. I'm not the only one affronted by this abortion. This is worse than Y&T's stupid robot, and has possibly edged it ahead of Iron Maiden's incompetent Dance of Death artwork to be the worst album cover of any I've reviewed so far.

However - starting off your album with a track called 'Swords and Tequila' is dope as fuck, a completely alpha move that almost excuses the fact that you've put a baby fur seal on your album cover. It matters little that Fire Down Under sounds as if it's been recorded inside a shipping container, or that the lyrics are so mind-bendingly on-the-nose that you're weeping for a simile or metaphor by the last few tracks; you start a rockin' album with a track called 'Swords and Tequila' and you're cooking with gas, baby.

There's something extremely lovable about Fire Down Under that cloaks it's myriad demerits. Never mind the fact that this is metal as written by people who palpably haven't ever looked into a book that doesn't possess illustrations. Ignore the fact that the influences begin at track one of Judas Priest's Killing Machine and end at track eleven of Judas Priest's Killing Machine. Don't sweat that every guitar solo sounds the same. Try to drink yourself into such a stupor that you forgot you ever saw that crime against nature on the album cover.

See, what Fire Down Under has is guts, sincerity and an all-in, gonzo belief that rocking hard is the apogee of human experience. Seeing as an actual Nazi has laid claim to the expression I would use to describe why this album works, I'll settle with stating that this is a victory due to nothing less than bloody-minded and blinkered commitment. Passion and sincerity can take you a long way when some of the subtler arts employed by most artists are absent.

Besides, there's a base level of competence here - everyone can play, the vocals are appealing enough if generic - which means that Fire Down Under keeps its head above water where it matters. On top of that, although I did mention that every solo sounds the same, that's no bad thing because that one solo fucking smokes. The aforementioned artlessness that went into the creation of Fire Down Under works in its favour, as it's absolutely free of pretensions towards anything other than sending the dandruff flying. So, whilst 'Outlaw' has a chorus that is - literally - about playing roulette, it's certainly the best heavy metal roulette song I've ever heard.

The sheer joy in Fire Down Under is that it creates a feedback loop of adrenaline, each subsequent track galvanised by the momentum of what came beforehand (that is, until 'Altar of the King', which takes inspiration both in name and ponderous intro from Rainbow, before morphing into some tight shit that could've graced the first three Saxon albums). I feel it's impossible to not be caught up in the clattery stampede, and I couldn't guarantee you that I wouldn't be bellowing "swords, and tequila, carry me through the night!" once I got a few Peronis in me. Just imagine how much adrenaline you'd have pumping through you when you're down bowling alley and you've got 100mph tracks like 'Fire Down Under', 'Don't Hold Back' or 'Run For You Life' running walloping through your cerebral cortex - you'd be windmilling those balls at the skittles overarm.

To sum up, then, Riot's Fire Down Under works for me because it appeals to every weekend warrior who picks up a guitar and bashes out Foghat covers to sparse, drunken crowds. There's no cynicism behind that kind of slog - there's a purity of purpose (sheer love of rock music) that is reflected in the almost naïve thump and rumble of this album. It possesses an intangible quality that might be best described as 'spirit' - and no matter how clumsy the execution, that spirit shines through. Wonderful! Ditch the seal though, lads.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Discipline - King Crimson

Provenance: I volunteered at Reading Festival in 2003 (I realise you're all clamouring to know whether I saw Sum 41 - the answer is yes), and my friend Simon, with whom I was camping (next to members of Linkin Park's extended entourage, some guys from the Datsuns and a former Deep Purple roadie) told me about a record fair that was taking place in the leisure centre next to the festival site.

Desperate to get away from the wretched swine who hemmed me in day and night, I readily agreed with Simon's suggestion to slip away for an hour or two.

I hadn't intended on buying anything, but that's been the perennial bleat I've made every time I've exited from a music shop or bookstore laden with purchases. Anyway, I kept my 'discipline' here, and bought a single album - King Crimson's Discipline(!), influenced jointly by my dad owning In the Court of the Crimson King and having seen the Discipline line-up on a Fridays rerun. They sounded pretty cool, and they had an odd looking fellow playing a Chapman stick. Sold!

Review: When I was growing up in Bournemouth it had a reputation as a place to go once you've given up on life; later on, thanks to the proliferation of clubs with names like Wiggle, Bliss and Toko, weekends in the town became one long bacchanal, if such revels solely consisted of guys in Ted Bakers getting in paggas at taxi ranks and driving modded hatchbacks very slowly around the 'Westover circuit'.

What was never apparent about Bournemouth in those days was its status as an incubator for many a prog-rock superstar. John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia), Greg Lake (Emerson Lake and Palmer) and Robert Fripp (King Crimson) all met each other at Bournemouth College, whilst the Giles brothers (King Crimson) were also local. During my late teens, quite a few then-current / former members of Hawkwind (honestly, they probably couldn't tell you whether they were in the group or not) used to hang around a pub I would frequent, and my mate Max and I would receive semi-regular thrashings on the pool table from these erstwhile psychonauts.

This should mean nothing when it comes to a sober appraisal of Discipline, but my take on their output is tempered with a small but significant - and no doubt idiotic - dose of hometown pride. We had sticky clubs pumping out DJ Otzi megamixes, a shite football team and our most famous residents were Max Bygraves and Jimmy Savile. King Crimson, at the very least, had a degree of credibility, even a touch of mystery - bandleader Fripp was a retiring, elusive presence, and their version of prog left no room for flummery or whimsy. To those of us of sound mind, pop music can't really hurt you, but for my money King Crimson's Red is about as unsettling and scary as the genre can get. Cool!

But Discipline is not Red. This is King Crimson meets Talking Heads, heavily influenced by the new wave and self-consciously arty. However, Robert Fripp is undoubtedly one of the more cerebral guitar slingers out there, and for Discipline he recruited other guys who weren't exactly slouches in the brains department either - Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals), Tony Levin (bass, Chapman stick) and the incomparable Bill Bruford on drums (the single holdover from King Crimson's previous studio album, the aforementioned Red). This adds up to an arch, clever-clever group of musos with the chops to pull off some complex ideas.

Two things at the outset - first, these guys can't sound convincingly playful. Not even wacky old Adrian in his pink suits can escape the po-faced pomposity of some of the subjects that Crimson tackle. I'm not expecting the kind of winking bawdiness that AC/DC do from King fucking Crimson, but even lighter themes are turned into somewhat byzantine word-and-rhythm games. I don't think anyone has ever referred to King Crimson - any line-up of King Crimson - as 'the lads'. The second point, slightly adjacent to the first, is that everything on Discipline is highly technical, highly strung and very buttoned up. Nothing on Discipline sounds at all organic (probably by design, given the name), so one has to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy it. This isn't music to relax to - quite the opposite - it's tense, itchy, uncomfortable. This latter issue isn't necessarily a criticism.

In fact, when it comes together, Discipline is a marvel. For all that they've sacrificed any notions of looseness or vibe for technical ecstasy, the personnel involved mean that the level of playing is simply dazzling. Bruford is the standout for me, conjuring up polyrhythmic patterns of rare power and drive. I reckon an album solely of Bruford's contributions would be quite listenable. The word genius is tossed around a lot when a simple 'very good' would do, but he's worthy of the mantle.

Elsewhere, the strength in Discipline lies in the sheer range of weird and wonderful sounds the rest of the band coax from their instruments. For example, on opener 'Elephant Talk', some clever sod has got their guitar sounding like a pachyderm's trumpeting; and instrumental 'The Sheltering Sky' features a slew of guitars that have been pushed to their outer limits. Here, the effect is sometimes shrill and uncanny - but on the gorgeous, aching 'Matte Kudasai', the weeping violin effect is mesmerising, elevating an already plangent tune to greater depths of sensibility.

And where necessary, in between the Afrobeat guitars and paradiddles, King Crimson can still muster up a mighty roar. The first instance that the heavily overdriven guitar kicks in during the chorus of 'Thela Hun Ginjeet' is a startling, even overwhelming moment - so all-consuming is the sound that it knocks the wind out of the other instrumentation and almost takes on a physical dimension. Mostly the jump scares are absent, though it really doesn't matter whilst the arrangements ping and whizz around in a dizzying, whirling, triumphal demonstration of what happens when pure ability is harnessed to a singular, iron will. Discipline is whip-smart, deadly serious, a little pretentious - and perversely, a lot of fun.

Oh, and Blur were absolute pony at that year's Reading Festival. I gave up and went to watch Billy Bragg instead.