Helmet “Aftertaste”


(18 March 1997, Interscope)

Helmet are one of those deceptively brilliant bands. A cursory listen will leave one thinking this is a simple, caveman rock band with no depth and a modicum of talent. And the caveman description would be somewhat appropriate. They called their third album Betty and opened it with the track “Wilma’s Rainbow.” I can only assume these were references to the most well-known cave women in pre-history.

Most of the songs on Aftertaste are pretty formulaic. Simple, syncopated riff+angry vocals=Helmet. The strange thing is Page Hamilton’s ability to sing in a tone so close to yelling, but still so melodic. It’s the perfect balance of rage and tunefulness. I haven’t heard anyone else combine these elements and produce such a satisfying product.

Opener “Pure” relies on one chugged chord for the main riff and a strummed octave chorus, but it creates a beautiful wall of sound. This is a band that uses negative space better than any other band in existence. The brilliance is not just in the notes they play or don’t play, but in the spaces between those notes.

The most well known cavewomen in pre-history

It’s easy to let an album like this fade into the background. To be honest, most of the songs sound so similar it’s difficult to tell them apart. But every now and again you hear something like the guitar solo of “Driving Nowhere” or the superb noise of “Broadcast Emotion” and it’s like catching a glimpse some mythical beast rising from the murky depths. The bass heavy intro of “Renovation” is hard to ignore as it hearkens back to “Milktoast” from Betty.

After a few listens light finds its way through the cracks in the stone to illuminate cave drawings I missed on the first pass. I’ve been jamming to Betty in my car for the past few days thinking it’s a superior product to this one, but then I hear “Like I Care” for the second time and I’m amazed that I listened to it with anything other than… amazement.

 

I could go on and on about this album, but mostly I just want to- wait, what the hell? Did you catch that? There’s a string of like four songs that clock in at about 2.5 minutes and sound like they’re cut off in the middle. Is that a problem with my Spotify account? Or is is supposed to be like that?

I’m not even sure how to classify Helmet. Hard rock seems most appropriate. They’re a bit too heavy to call alternative, but not quite heavy enough for metal. And even though Hamilton is an accomplished Jazz player with chops to spare I don’t think prog or fusion fits. Wikipedia calls them post-metal, but I’m strongly opposed to defining any type of music by saying it came after some other type.

I imagine if Goldilocks were to find this in the three bears’ record collection she would describe Aftertaste as just right.

Marcy Playground – Self Titled


marcy_playground_-_marcy_playground_album_cover-1(25 February 1997, Capitol)

I was driving in the car with my girlfriend the other day when the Seven Mary Three song “Cumbersome” came on the radio. She told me she was really into Seven Mary Three when she was younger and listened to their album all the time. That blew my mind. It never even crossed my mind that Seven Mary Three would have an album and fans. To me they were just something that was always there. Like a DirecTV satellite dish that you mow around because you don’t want to take the time to pull it out of the ground. That’s how I thought of Seven Mary Three.

It wasn’t until today that I realized other people must think of Marcy Playground in the same way.

“Sex and Candy” is just as prevalent than “Cumbersome.” I hear it on the radio. I hear it at the gym. I hear it at Walmart. It’s all over the place; just like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or “Possum Kingdom.” But I actually own the album.

It’s not a bad album. It’s Folksy, Post-Grunge AOR. There are songs that I really enjoy and a few that I can’t tell from one another. Opener “Poppy’s” is held down by quirky guitar riff. Songs like “Gone Crazy,” “One More Suicide” and “Vampires of New York” are simple folk tunes made interesting by the wry vocals.

It’s something I enjoy, but when I listen to it and find it difficult to write more than 300 words about it I understand why they were a one-hit wonder.

Day of the New – S/T (Green)


Days of the New green(31 August 1999, Outpost)

One of the greatest things about music is its ability to take you places. Hearing a song can make you feel like you’re back in junior high school without a care in the world. A lot of songs bring scenes in movies to mind (think of Forrest Gump). Sometimes it can take you to a whole other world. Days of the New’s second album has the power to transport me from wherever I happen to be back to Hyrule.

My mom met the man who would become her second husband while I was in high school. He was living in a small apartment above a bar with a mattress, a chihuahua/shih tzu mix and a huge stereo from Rent-a-Center. It didn’t take long until he moved in with us; and brought the dog and the stereo. It’s easy to date when he moved in because he only had four CDs: Ozzy’s No Rest For The Wicked, Yngwie Malmsteem’s Facing the Animal, Godsmack’s debut and DotN’s second album.

“Enemy” was a big hit at the time and he loved it. He would play that album over and over while drinking at the kitchen table with his buddies. Being in high school I wasn’t old enough to drink and probably spent at least a little bit of time studying. But when I wasn’t studying I was sitting in front of the television with my little brother because around the same time he moved in with that huge stereo we got a Super Nintendo and A Link To The Past. I have no idea how many times we played through that game together, but I can remember having a lot of fun with him. I think that may have been the best bonding we ever did.

And the great thing is that whenever I hear Days of the New’s second album I can think back on those days.

the_legend_of_zelda_a_link_to_the_past_snes_game_coverIt probably helps that the album starts off with the sound of horse hooves. How else can I get from the water level to the desert level quickly? I’m a huge fan of all the segues that blend the tracks together. I honestly can’t name most of the songs on this album, and probably couldn’t tell you where most of them begin or end because it works as such a great cohesive whole.

The secret weapon is Nicole Sherzinger who would later achieve mega stardom as the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls. It feels really weird to write that because the musical styles of the two groups couldn’t be more distant. But Sherzinger does have a beautiful voice and uses it to great effect with Days of the New.

Singer/Guitarist/Songwriter Travis Meeks got a lot of grief for pulling one of those megalomaniacal stunts of firing his whole band, but in his defense did you ever listen to Tantric? That was not a band I enjoyed. Sure, they were competent musicians and their stuff was okay, but there was no fire behind it. It always sounded like safe, middle-of-the-road rock to me. I just imagine them bringing the songs to him and him saying “No. You’re all fired.”

The acoustic guitars are still front and center but there’s plenty of other instrumentation to shake things up. The acoustic guitar thing was a good gimmick that definitely got them attention with their debut, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t have kept peoples interest if they’d just repeated that formula.

I’m not sure what all the instruments were used on this album , but I’m guessing there’s an ocarina in there somewhere. It really takes me back then.

 

Bush “Razorblade Suitcase”


Bush "Razorblade Suitcase"(19 Nov 1996, Trauma/Interscope)

When I checked the list of 20-year-old albums earlier this year, Bush’s sophomore album Razorblade Suitcase seemed like a great one to do a Platinum Anniversary Albums review on. I remember really liking it when it came out and it’s remained in my collection for most of those two decades. It was produced by Steve Albini, who recorded hundreds of underground punk albums as well as Nirvana’s In Utero. But after I revisited the album the idea seemed… well… not as great.

I don’t want to give the impression that Razorblade Suitcase is a bad album. It’s not bad by any means. It’s just not exceptionally good.

I’m guessing most people still remember the singles. “Swallowed” was a reasonably big hit. It’s not a bad tune. I really like the first verse being just guitar and vocals before the chorus kicks in to rock out, but when the second verse is stripped down to bass and vocals it comes off as jarring. It strikes me as a song that could have been great with a little more consistency.

I remember “Mouth” from the film An American Werewolf in Paris. (or was it London? I never actually saw the movie.) Unfortunately, that was a remixed version of the track. On this album it’s stripped down to it’s bare bones and quite underwhelming after hearing the other version. Do you remember the single “Cold Contagious”? You’re forgiven if you don’t. I honestly can’t think of anything to say about it one way or another.

My favorite track on the album was always “Greedy Fly.” Whether it was because of the awesome video or the twinkling guitar lines I can’t say. The funny thing is that for as much as I dislike the everything-but-the-bass-cutting-out effect in “Swallowed,” I love it here. The stop/start quality of that heavy chorus riff gets me every time. This is one of those songs I can listen to over and over and never get sick of.

 

The rest of the album is predominantly forgettable. This isn’t like Sixteen Stone where you’re going to want to play it over and over again because the songs get stuck in your head. It’s more like you’ll want to play it several times because you can’t remember if you liked it. The opener “Personal Holloway” is a good rocker to kick things off, but the momentum doesn’t really continue. “Straight No Chaser” and “Bonedriven” try to recapture the magic of “Glycerine” with just Gavin Rossdale accompanied by a cello, but neither really comes close.

Sure, there’s great design and a lot of potential here, but this is the definition of a sophomore slump. I give them credit for branching out, taking risks and trying something new (and this album sold way more copies than anything I’ve ever put out); but this is one of those unhappy cases where artistic integrity didn’t pay off.

 

 

Marilyn Manson “Antichrist Superstar”


antichrist_superstar_4170(8 October 1996, Nothing/Interscope)

There’s something I like to call the “Smoke on the Water Principal (SWP).” You see, as a songwriter I’ve always found it a lot easier to write a more-elaborate-than-necessary guitar riff, jam packed with odd chords and enough hammer-ons and pull-offs to make your head spin than to write a simple, catchy riff. The main riff to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” is the perfect example of an accomplished musician opting to play something so simple that anyone who picks up a guitar can master it in about three tries, but it’s also one of the most memorable pieces of music written in the past 50 years. Some of the greatest guitar riffs in history have utilized the SWP, even if they didn’t know it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Paranoid” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” are all prime examples.

And so is the biggest hit of Marilyn Manson’s career “The Beautiful People.”

Antichrist Superstar is a sloppy mess of an album, but that’s part of it’s appeal. It’s strange that something produced by Trent Reznor contains so much feedback and noise, but much like The Downward Spiral it serves as a record of the band at the time.

The only live opener on a studio album that I know of is “Irresponsible Hate Anthem.” I’m not sure if they couldn’t get the sound they wanted in the studio or if they ran out of time and had to pull out a live recording. Either way, it works. The only problem I have with it is the notes say it was recorded on Valentine’s Day 1997, six months after the album came out. Do I have a new pressing? Was this a typo? The world may never know.

“Tied Up, Dried Up and Dead to the World” sounds like Korn to my ears. Not so much the chorus but the ending part with the chugga-chugga-chugga squeal. That’s something I’ve heard in just about every Korn song ever. “Tourniquet” was always one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for those simple riffs with long bends. It’s like “Interstate Love Song,” but way, way darker.

 

The middle portion of the album is where things start to drag. There are a few gems in there. “Little Horn,” “Mister Superstar” and “Angel With The Scabbed Wings” are all decent rockers, but some of the stuff just seems half finished. This is one of those instances of artistic ambitions getting in the way of just making a good album.

But then the third cycle really knocks it out of the park. “Antichrist Superstar” is perhaps the strongest on the album. Drop D chords mesh with crowd cheers to make you feel like your at a Nazi rally. “1996” is great in spite of (or perhaps because of) it’s poor production. It all sounds live in the studio complete with a guitar being smashed at the end. “Minute of Decay” is the one song on the album written completely by Manson. The simple bass line and distorted guitars have always made this a favorite of mine. Plus, it’s the one place you can tell that he really does have a great voice.

“Your world is an ashtray,” is a line that’s been repeating in my head for a few days now. “The Reflecting God” may be the heaviest thing on this album. Is has a frenetic bass line that smashes into the three-chord chorus and really makes me want to smash something. I think that’s about all you can ask from a good heavy metal song. Yet again they use live material for the third pre-chorus and it makes the song that much more intense.

Antichrist Superstar Back CoverI can still remember when the Shirley Jackson inspired video for “Man That You Fear” premiered on MTV and I watched it about seven times. It’s a great closer. The slow track floats along with Reznor playing piano and ends with Manson’s distorted voice saying “When all of your wishes are granted, many of your dreams will be destroyed.”

Yes, Antichrist Superstar is a hectic, dis-joined and messy album. I can’t help but wonder what it would have sounded like if they’d spent less time snorting cocaine and destroying equipment and more time writing songs and practicing. But it stands as a portrait of what the band was like when they were young, hungry and had something to prove to the world and that’s something we’ll never hear from Marilyn Manson again.

Fiona Apple “Tidal”


FionaAppleTidal(23 July 1996, Columbia)

A few weeks ago I saw that Tidal was trending on Twitter. I had already planned to do this post so I clicked to see what people were saying. I thought they were talking about Fiona Apple’s magnificent 1996 debut. With the 20th anniversary coming up it made sense. The first tweet linked to an article about how Apple was trying to buy Tidal. Well, this confused me, but then I read it was about tech giant Apple wanting to buy a music streaming service Jay-Z started.

Well, that makes more sense. No one cares about a great piece of music from 20 years ago.

But I wasn’t completely naive to think others still care about Fiona Apple. According to her Wikipedia page the album received awesome acclaim from Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Slate Magazines and is featured in 1001 Albums to Listen to Before you Die.

And then, of course, there is that video. To males of my generation Apple was one of the ultimate sex symbols thanks to “Criminal.” It’s worth noting that this was before the slut-pop explosion of the late 90’s featuring Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and P!nk. Sure, there were other sexy videos at the time, but I can’t remember any of them. I can barely remember any from Britney, Christina or P!nk any more. But “Criminal” is permanently etched in my brain. I think that video may have jump started my pituitary gland into early onset puberty. And now that I’m older I still love this video. Especially the end part where the dish detergent floats up in the air. What the hell is that all about?

But the greatest thing is that the song is about a woman admitting she was wrong, and that’s something we don’t get to hear often enough.

 

It seems disrespectful to lump Apple in with all of the other slut-pop singers. About the only thing she had in common with them was the gratuitous partial nudity (which should be noted only occurred in one video). Aside from that she had more in common with Adele; a sultry voice, jazzy music, lack of choreography and actual talent. If Miley Cyrus’ genre of music is like a romantic comedy, Fiona Apples’ is a serious drama.

It’s also worth noting that Apple never seemed particularly comfortable with her role as rock star/sex symbol. From the “the world is bullshit” acceptance speech she made when receiving a Video Music Award to dating Marilyn Manson to her current status as eccentric artist she never seemed to relish stardom or bask in it. I don’t think shes done extremely well weathering the storms of fame, but she’s done a lot better than Kurt Cobain.

And aside from that one megahugegiganticenourmous hit song there are another nine great tunes. I’ve never cared too much for opener “Sleep to Dream.” I think it may have to do with the instrumentation. I’d prefer piano and drums to the weird backward bass loops. “Shadowboxer” has always been a favorite for it’s driving piano riff. “The First Taste” is interesting and has a bit of an island feel even without steel drums. Because of the line “There’s too much going on…” “Sullen Girl” has always reminded me of “Talking Old Soldiers” by Elton John. They don’t have much in common except for the piano and that one line, but it’s enough for me to make a connection.

My one problem with the album is how much of it is piano/vocal ballads. They’re great songs, but it’s not the kind of music I tend to pull down off the shelf very often. Of course, I can’t imagine what the songs would sound like with a more prominent backing band.

fionaappleBut the lyrics more than make up for any issues I may have. It’s weird and somewhat worrisome that I find the ramblings of this crazy girl so relatable, but with all the copies of this album that sold I can’t have been the only one. My favorite is from the closer “Carrion”: “My feel for you boy, Is decaying in front of me, Like the carrion of a murdered prey.”

That’s right, she’s comparing her emotions to roadkill. This is truly a woman after my own heart.

 

Soundgarden “Down On The Upside”


Soundgarden-DownOnTheUpside21 May 1996, A&M Records

It’s amazing how great my memory is regarding some of these albums I’ve had for 20 years. I can still remember buying it at the Blockbuster in Massillon, OH. Dad always took us to the video store at the beginning of our weekend visit and let us pick out one or two movies to keep us busy. I hadn’t even known Soundgarden had a new album out when I saw it. I don’t think I got a video that night, but I got a new CD.

I can still remember telling my friends about it and I can remember when they played on Saturday Night Live. But I can’t remember why I took the disc out of its original cardboard case and put it into a regular jewel case. I’m guessing it didn’t fit into my CD tower or something. Maybe I just wanted uniformity. I saw a new copy cheap at FYE a few weeks ago and thought about replacing mine, but I’m not sure I want to do that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a really good album, but compared to Badmotorfinger or Superunknown it’s just OK.

I find it hard to find fault with any of the singles. Opener “Pretty Noose” is a stock Soundgarden jam with a freaky wah-drenched intro and solo, huge open-tuned guitar sounds and Chris Cornell’s screams. The only thing I didn’t like was that the American version of the video kinda sucked and that was before YouTube so I couldn’t just go online and watch the international version. “Burden In My Hand” makes use of the odd tunings but in a much different way. It’s more of a strange singer/songwriter ballad with a monster backing band. “Blow Up The Outside World” was always one of my favorites. I think that track captures the whisper-soft verse/ big-scream chorus dynamic better than any other song. Plus, Kim Thayil shows off some pretty awesome leads.

 

I think “Ty Cobb” is my favorite song on the album. I’m not used to Soundgarden doing breakneck punk songs, but they managed to sound right at home on this one by throwing mandolins and mandolas on the track. And the chorus of “Hard headed fuck you all” was just what my 13-year-old mind needed.

Other than that not a whole lot really sticks out. I like a lot of the the slower, brooding tracks. “Zero Chance,” “Tighter & Tighter” and “Overfloater” all have great melodies and lyrics. I’m not that into some of the other faster tracks. “Never The Machine Forever” is saved by one of Thayil’s great guitar solos. He’s the only guitarist that can play leads that are so fast they get sloppy but still have them sound good. “No Attention” is saved by the time shift for the last verse and chorus.

And a few of the songs I actually don’t really care for. It’s almost frustrating that I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong with this album. Honestly, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with the album. It’s a great collection of well written and well played songs. I would bet money that my biggest problem with it is that it’s not Superunknown. It’s not quite as dark and not really edgy. By 1996 grunge had gone from being a sub genre to being mainstream rock and I’ve always felt that mainstream rock isn’t nearly as cool as underground music.

Or maybe what I’m hearing is the tension that would break Soundgarden up less than a year after this album was released. Maybe they just needed a break. Cornell said that “Boot Camp” was about his childhood, but with the benefit of hindsight the last words on the album seem very prophetic, “There must be something else, there must be something good, far away.”

Helluva way to end an album.

soundgarden-conan