This time out, it’s all about the ’80s and ’90s. It was an interesting time when these two worlds collided starting around 1988 and on through about 1992. In looking back at the stuff coming out at that time, you can see new things taking shape, forming the foundations for what would ultimately become grunge and the new alternative rock scene. Per that, for this installment I couldn’t think of anything better than to explore some recent retro releases from the inimitable goth/industrial/psych deviant James Ray.
One of the more interesting scenes to watch at the time was the transformation of the Goth movement. Referred to many as “Death Rock” at the time, the somber scene once spearheaded by the likes of Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees was, by the late ’80s, wildly splintering into different directions. Bauhaus was gone, and its spinoff band Love and Rockets were bona fide rock stars. The Cure had become a pop institution, churning out radio-friendly ditties at every turn, while The Cult were the latest arena-rock sensations sounding more akin to AC/DC and Aerosmith than the wispy dirge of their earlier catalog. Sisters of Mercy were down to just one original member, who transformed the scrappy combo into a massive-sounding musical onslaught. Singer Andrew Eldritch also had a knack for discovering and curating new talent, and one of his protégés was nine other than James Ray.
James Ray and The Performance (also featuring longtime cohort Carl Harrison) had signed to the Sisters of Mercy’s record label Merciful Release, and unleashed a series of EPs and singles around 1986 and eventually a compilation album A New Kind of Assassin. Ray had also contributed to Eldritch’s side band The Sisterhood around that time.
The Performance’s industrial-dance sounds embellished with Ray’s seamy baritone had made quite an impression on Eldritch and soon after, the indie charts and underground dance clubs. First single “Mexico Sundown Blues” mixes Southwestern influences, along with the Sisters of Mercy’s famed drum machine Doktor Avalanche for a truly unique take. Other standout singles from the time include the driving “Texas,” “Dust Boat” and the brooding “Edie Sedgwick,” which precedes The Cult’s own “Edie” by a couple years.
Much of the long-out-of-print James Ray and The Performance canon can now be had on the excellent new comp from HNE/Cherry Red Records titled Dust Boat: Merciful Release Recordings 1986-1989. The release features rare cuts, b-sides and expanded versions, including an epic 9-minute take on “Mexico Sundown Blues,” emphasizing the tune’s ominous qualities. The CD set also includes an informative book on this obscure outfit.
The label has also released a comp for Ray’s next Merciful-related project: James Ray’s Gangwar. Much heavier, guitar-driven and more sample-laden than The Performance stuff, Gangwar is a successful example of the convergence of techno and psychedelia with hard rock. The band’s single “Rev Rev Lowrider” is rife with pummeling distorted guitars, machine-gun beats and eerie samples. “Another Million Dollars” sounds very much like Floodland-era Sisters of Mercy with angular guitars superimposed over a hypnotic rhythm bed and Ray’s somber croon. The band released a string of singles and eventually the album Dios Esta De Nuestro Lado in 1992. It’s all been collected in the excellent new release Destination Assassination: Merciful Release 89-92. This comp features loads of rare tracks, plus a second disc of demos, including a very different version of “Edie Sedgwick” with a haunting saxophone riff. For more information on these stellar retrospectives from one of post-punk’s most undervalued artists, visit HNE/Cherry Red.
More recent releases…
The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement during the early ‘80s had far-reaching effects in these parts and across Europe. But for every Iron Maiden and Def Leppard there were hundreds of also-rans striving to make an impact. Enter Acid. This female-fronted Belgian export made a mighty racket with its primitive speed-metal approach and S&M imagery. Lacking any nuance or subtlety, the riffs and lyrics are in-your-face from start to finish.
The band’s strongest offering is its eponymous debut (1983). Vocalist “Kate” has a massive range and a twisted little yodel that surfaces now and then. The self-titled opener sets the tone with a rousing chorus proclaiming, “Acid is the name, heavy metal is the game!” In spite of its lack of sophistication, it’s got a spirited naiveté that’s kind of fun. Further albums Maniac (1983) and Engine Beast (1985) follow a similar formula and saw the band’s fortunes decline with the rise of more seasoned bands like Metallica and Anthrax, who would go on to outshine the likes of Acid in both songwriting and musicianship.
All three of these rare early slabs of metal can now be had for a song—including bonus tracks with remastered sound. (HNE/Cherry Red)
Faith No More
As a Bay Area club kid, I was well aware of Faith No More. The band was one of the few that could seamlessly bend genres and cross scenes, playing with both metal and R&B bands on any given night. When Mike Patton joined and it released The Real Thing (1989), no one in the around these parts could’ve predicted how huge the band would get, and it was great to see something as unique as this gain momentum with the masses. The band’s oddball mix of metal guitars, erratic rhythms, quirky keyboards and the signature vocal acrobatics of Mike Patton were unlike anything, yet, the public embraced it, with songs like “Epic” and “Falling To Pieces” becoming anthems of the age.
It would be three years until a proper follow-up would be released, but Angel Dust (1992) was well worth it. While less commercial than its predecessor, the album would astound core fans and critics alike with its heavier, often experimental sounds. Patton’s delivery is theatrical in nature, with a vocal performance that ranges from melodic to mocking to unhinged. But it all works a charm from a musical sense, and is enhanced by some cunning sampling and studio trickery. Standouts include “Everything’s Ruined” and “Midlife Crisis.” Sadly, Angel Dust would be the last album with axe man Jim Martin in tow, which would forever alter the band’s delivery.
Both albums have been lovingly reissued in 2-disc packages with loads of bonus tracks, expanded packaging and more. (Rhino)
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, 311 has combed the vaults at Sony to concoct this extensive CD box set. Rather than just expand upon the standard greatest-hits blueprint, the band has kept its core fans in mind by compiling a set of rare B-sides, non-CD cuts, demos, and unreleased tracks. The ska/pop/hard rock band’s approach has lent itself to a variety of sounds and styles over the years, which comes across well in this varied collection. There’s the heavy, nu-metal crash of the “Transistor Intro” the laid-back ska flow of “Outside” and strange, jazzy piano bounce of “Blizza.”
Fans focused on the band’s mid-‘90s commercial stuff may find the set to be a bit too busy, but the years have demonstrated this to be one of 311’s greatest strengths, and Archive is a solid document of it. (Sony Legacy)
The Book Of Souls
The wildly anticipated Book Of Souls finds the Maiden boys ratcheting up the pomp and circumstance on a double album clocking in at over 92 minutes. If you thought 2010’s Final Frontier was epic, you’ll be floored by the sheer scale and size of this puppy, with three of its numbers ranging over 10 minutes long. The album was completed for the most part in 2014, but front man Bruce Dickinson’s cancer treatment delayed things a bit, making it all the more a welcome addition for the throngs of Maiden fanatics.
First off, if you’re mostly a fan of earlier Maiden material and the punchy wallop of “Wrathchild” of “Number of the Beast,” then The Book of Souls may come across as a bit complex and challenging. Opening with the dramatic “If Eternity Should Fail” (measuring in at eight minutes), the album takes things further with Steve Harris’ 13-minute “The Red and the Black,” with a Middle Eastern feel that is eerily similar to “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” in spots. The more straightforward and shrewdly titled “Tears of a Clown” is an homage of Robin Williams and is one of the strongest numbers the band has cranked out in years.
For the uninitiated, The Book Of Souls is not going to be the easiest Maiden album to digest. But if you’ve got three hours to fully ingest it at least twice, it pays dividends in spades. (BMG)
Return To Forever
To commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary and looming retirement, the Scorpions have released the aptly titled Return To Forever. And considering how many albums the band has under its collective studded belt, it does not disappoint.
From its groundbreaking Blackout album—the disc that launched pop metal into mainstream consciousness in 1982—the band has reveled in big riffs and catchy hooks. Return To Forever harkens back to those heady ’80s days, with anthemic rockers that stick to the psyche like glue, stuff like the autobiographical “Going Out with a Bang,” to the primal, free-spirited “Rock My Car” and the hook-laden power ballad “We Built This House.”
It hard to imagine the first few Scorpions records that thrived on intricate soundscapes, virtuoso guitars and trippy lyrics when hearing the poppier stuff like this. It’s such a natural fit…but will soon all be over. (Sony Legacy)
While it’s a pretty safe bet that Motörhead will not be reinventing the wheel anytime soon, a new release is always a welcome event. Bad Magic finds the seedy threesome rebounding after a scary bout with health problems, cancelled tours and other maladies.
2013’s Aftershock was celebrated as one of the band’s best albums in years, and while that perception may have some merit, it did not do much to expand the band’s approach like say Another Perfect Day did back in the ‘80s. And while Bad Magic is even less expansive and energized in spots, it does feature an interesting choice of covers. The final cut is none other than the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Yep, Lemmy and Co. have attempted one of the songs that just shouldn’t be tried (along with most Zeppelin and Beatles tunes), and have—in a weird way—pulled it off. With a busy beat and some wiry guitars, the band has done good by the Stones, with an idiosyncratic take on one of the most idiosyncratic songs in the classic rock canon. Other standouts include the meat-and-potatoes “Evil Eye” and “Thunder and Lightning”—both reliable without breaking down any walls. (UDR)
Rocks Donington 2014 DVD
In spite of all the excess and indiscretion, time has been kind to Aerosmith. As one of the more senior bands still on the scene, the quintessential American hard rock band still comes across as vibrant and alive—even in hi-def. While some of their brethren look weathered and seem to be going through the motions, these boys from Boston seem to still be enjoying themselves, as evidenced in this new live document.
For hard rock and heavy metal, Donington is the be-all, end-all, and Aersomith conquered it good last year. The set list includes many of the staples you’d expect—“Dream On,” “Janie’s Got A Gun” and “Dude (Looks Like A Lady),” but there are a few lesser-heard gems in here as well. “No More No More” and “Last Child” are prime examples, and sound electric in this rousing set, which benefits from superior sound and visuals. (Eagle)
Live At Shea Stadium 1982 DVD
While its 1982 release It’s Hard lacked the energy of earlier releases, The Who’s tour from that year showcased a band at the top of its game. With The Clash playing in support, The Who represented the old guard that “got it” when it came to embracing the new breed. And it showed in the band’s raucous live set, as proven on this stellar DVD release.
The disc features the band at the peak of its powers, during its last tour with drummer Kenny Jones. And the set is reflective of that energy, including numbers like “Young Man Blues,” “Long Live Rock,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” as well as the lesser renowned “Sister Disco,” which is a welcome addition. Culled from the second night of band’s Shea Stadium shows, this complete concert provides excellent visuals and a solid soundtrack mix, and should be required viewing for those looking to make the connection between The Who’s early proto-punk sounds and the modern stylings of the early ’80s. (Eagle Rock)
Before The Stray Cats made their mark on the masses, the rockabilly scene was alive and well in LA with bands like The Kingbees furthering the cause. Adding their own new wave spin to the blueprint, the band cranked out upbeat little ditties that would soon lead to a major record deal.
The band’s debut album (1980) has been recently reissued in remastered form, complete with several bonus tracks including demo versions of the songs. Standouts include “My Mistake” and “Sweet Sweet Girl To Me,” and provide a key view into the rockabilly revival of the early ‘80s, before it got mainstream attention. (Omnivore)
The Beckies were a short-lived power-pop outfit from the mid ’70s. Formed by virtuoso Michael Brown, whose credits include ’60s chamber pop/psych legends The Left Bank and ’70s soul-rockers Stories (“Brother Louie”), The Beckies released just one album, featuring a clutch of bittersweet power-pop numbers that showcased Brown’s lingering melodies and intricate chord changes.
Songs like “Midnight and You” and “Fran” showcase Brown’s knack for midtempo pop perfection while “River Bayou” is a haunting ballad that sticks, and “Song Called Love” is a driving rocker that lays the blueprint for some of the punkier power pop to follow. This reissue features the full album in sterling remastered form, with a full essay on the lost classic. (Real Gone)
British Live Performance Series
While Joe Jackson is much beloved for his jazzy pop arrangements and introspective lyrics, I always find myself most drawn to his first two records, Look Sharp! and I’m The Man. His early punk-infused, power-pop stuff was both catchy and literate, making him somewhat of an anomaly in the scene at the time.
This disc was culled from a UK TV show from 1981 and features stuff from Jackson’s first three albums, exactly the period I’m talking about. Opening with the punky “I’m The Man,” the set breaks for some spirited Jackson commentary before diving into rousing versions of “Evil Eye” and the ska-infused “Beat Crazy.” “Look Sharp” sounds energized as does the pop anthem “Is She Really Going Out With Him.”
While the sound quality is not the greatest, Jackson comes across youthful and snotty, making these early numbers sound extra good. (Rainman)
With its dark, melancholic tones and danceable beats, New Order influenced hordes of manic-depressives to pick up synths and cheap drum machines and start their own bands. Now some three decades later, the band unleashes its ninth album, Music Complete.
What we get here is a solid combination of light and shade. The guitars and synths mingle nicely in the mix, as exemplified on the haunting “Singularity,” while “Restless” ups the pop factor in its melodic grooves. “Tutti Frutti” revels in its seamy Euro-disco groove and “People on the High Line” has an upbeat funk approach that recalls the early ’80s. While core member Peter Hook is noticeably missing, his replacement does his best approximations and overall, the band’s sound is a successful amalgamation of various New Order eras, which is summed up nicely by the album’s title. (Mute)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, send me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, JK