Like many releases from SST’s incredible run in the ’80s, Happy Nightmare Baby languishes out of print. Opal’s only studio LP proper is a fabulous, valuable record, and in a just world, it would not be as scarce as it is. In a just world, SST—which is run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn—or a label specializing in reissues would have kept the lovely masterpiece in print perpetually. But no. Ginn seems not interested in keeping his label’s greatest titles available to the general public. Only tenacious bands with top-flight lawyers have managed to get the rights to their SST output for legit reissues. Sorry to bog you down with this minutiae, but if you want a vinyl copy of Happy Nightmare Baby, you’ll likely have to shell out major coin; I paid $40 for an original last year. Even the used CD I bought eight years ago cost $12, which is kind of scandalous.
Anyway, to the music, which was created by Rain Parade guitarist/vocalist David Roback and Dream Syndicate vocalist/bassist Kendra Smith. Their combined discographies reveal them to be songwriters whose work is built to last. And so it goes here. “Rocket Machine” launches Happy Nightmare Baby into T.Rextacy from the get-go, its slowed-down Bolan-esque boogie an instant initiation into Opal’s psychedelicized recontextualization of ’60s and ’70s classic rock moves. “Magick Power” uncoils like a serpentine Doors epic, but it’s infused with Smith’s sly feminine charms instead of Jim Morrison’s macho bravado. And that makes all the difference. (I’m a Doors fan, by the way, so hold your hate mail.)
On “She’s A Diamond,” Opal blow out a bluesy shuffle with fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar and glaze it with glorious, icy female backing vocals behind Smith’s wonderfully opiated drawl. You can hear why Roback picked Hope Sandoval for his next band, Mazzy Star, as she followed in Kendra’s compellingly lackadaisical steps. “Supernova” sounds what I imagine heroin feels like; it’s a languid strut, accentuated by guitars that spray gold glitter, and there’s also what sounds like an electric cello swirling in the background. Seductively stalking keyboard and bass riffs power “Siamese Trap,” augmented by Roback’s articulate guitar love cries. If you haven’t gathered by now, Happy Nightmare Baby possesses some of the most immersive and alluring sex music you’ll ever hear.
The Strange Days-era Doors-y title track casts a spell at once beatific and sinister, which is incredibly hard to do. “Soul Giver” offers the perfect ending to the album, with its methodical, tidal undertow and hypnotic, majestic sweep. Suki Ewers’ snaky, Manzarek-like organ arabesques really elevate the song to the highest echelon of extended psych jams. I used to put this on mixtapes next to Loop’s “Burning World,” and it was a helluva stoned 1-2 punch.
I realize it won’t be easy (thanks, Greg), but you should do whatever it takes to get Happy Nightmare Baby into your life—and, yes, you deserve better than a YouTube rip. -Buckley Mayfield
Following Rain Parade’s extraordinary 1983 debut LP Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Explosions In The Glass Palace couldn’t help sounding like a tiny bit of an anticlimax. But the five-song mini album by the standard-bearers of Los Angeles’ short-lived Paisley Underground scene (a term none of the participants probably ever want to hear or see again; sorry!) stands as a superb little collection of West Coast psychedelia.
Key Rain Parade singer-songwriter David Roback was mostly gone and working on Opal (and then later, the Clay Allison Band and Mazzy Star) by the time the group cut Explosions; he’s only credited on the EP’s last track, “No Easy Way Down.” But Roback’s brother Steven, Matt Piucci, and Will Glenn ably picked up the compositional slack. “You Are My Friend” is a bejangled, tender-hearted slice of mellifluous raga rock that could’ve come from the pen of Roger McGuinn or Lennon-McCartney circa “Rain.” As a homage to psych-rock’s first vital steps, it’s a goddamn beaut. By contrast, eerie waltz-time zoner “Prisoners” creeps in with stealth, bolstered by majestically arcing guitar sighs and moans, evoking those comfortably numb, sublimely ponderous Pink Floyd space-outs.
The blissful, gently rippling midtempo rock of “Blue”—which contains the poignant line “All our tears couldn’t bring her home”—strikes me as ideal for driving the idyllic back roads around Big Sur, California. (You haven’t been to Big Sur? You should try to remedy that soon.) If there’s a lull in Explosions, it occurs on “Broken Horse,” a Steven Roback-penned acoustic-guitar ballad whose slightly melodramatic, melancholic Neil Young vibe breaks the EP’s lysergic spell. But things elevate dramatically on Explosions‘ peak “No Easy Way Down.” It’s one of the deepest, most seductive psychedelic excursions Rain Parade ever made, echoing the Door’s “The End” via the main riff’s spellbinding Eastern lilt and Will Glenn’s rich, sacred Hammond B-3 whorls.
The year after Explosions, Rain Parade created one more very good album on Island, Crashing Dream, before folding, but they still occasionally play out. In fact, in 2014 they headlined Seattle’s Hypnotikon Festival, and revealed flashes of their old selves. Rain Parade’s catalog may be small, but it’s all wonderful, including the exquisite Explosions In The Glass Palace. -Buckley Mayfield
When people talk about the all-time classic shoegaze-rock albums, they often forget about this one. Big mistake. I mean, Star came out on England’s Creation Records, Shoegaze Central, in 19bloody92. It’s hard to get better positioning than that. Plus, it had a fab cover and it was made by Creation boss Alan McGee’s tightest bro from way back when: Ed Ball.
So why has Star virtually vanished into the ether? Why has a work that this writer and a few other friends rank up there with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Isn’t Anything and Ride’s Nowhere eluded the consciousness of the underground-rock cognoscenti? (That shoegaze documentary Beautiful Noise didn’t devote a dang minute to Teenage Filmstars.) One theory: Fellow Creationists My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive—and Lush—siphoned so much attention from the music press that they eclipsed almost everyone else. Well, it’s time to atone for mistakes and get familiar with Teenage Filmstars’ fantastic debut full-length. (Props to the infinitesimal minority who already know it by heart.)
From the first seconds of opening song “Kiss Me,” you realize you’re immersed in a special record. Teenage Filmstars fling you into a super-saturated glam-rock alternate universe in which Electric Warrior-era T.Rex is remixed by Kevin Shields. The main riff’s repeated ad nauseam, like an OCD come-on to which you succumb over and over (and over). First song and you’re already spent, but you soldier on because you sense even greater pleasures await you. “Loving” is an idealized simulacrum of Loveless‘ unbearably sensuous, cooing vocals, throbbing guitar miasma, and subliminally thrusting rhythms. It’s a potent aphrodisiac. “Inner Space” out-ethereals those interstitial bits on Loveless and makes Cocteau Twins sound like the Cult. To paraphrase the Jimi Hendrix Experience, it’s got me floating.
“Apple” is a heavenly flange swirl that, if you could condense it into a pill, would erase the world’s pain in four minutes. The gorgeous lysergic reverie “Flashes” boasts the same skittering, funky drums as the intro to MBV’s “Soon,” hilariously rubbing your nose in the Loveless association. The endlessly revving and twittering instrumental “Vibrations” is what I imagine LSD guru Timothy Leary heard as he shuffled off this mortal coil. It always reduces me to acidic tears. The title of “Hallucinations” is a bit too on the nose, but its Möbius-strip synth exhalations and astral turbulence give you what it promises. This cut comes at the part of your trip when you either ascend to a startling peak or descend into a private hell of insanity—those “Time to die” snippets from Blade Runner may make you feel like it actually is. “Moon” closes the album with an end-credits flourish. It’s the most conventional moment on all of Star, and it somehow returns you to a semblance of normality in grand style. Quite considerate of you, Teenage Filmstars.
Cherry Red reissued this shoegaze classic on vinyl in 2010; Artpop! re-released it on CD with three bonus tracks in 2008. In the liner notes to the latter, Ed Ball writes, “Rather than take acid or Ecstasy in the studio, I endeavoured to capture the effect they had on my senses—the misheard, the misunderstood, attention to details in sound not normally given second thought.” Mission accomplished, Ed! -Buckley Mayfield
Some albums just ooze a singular atmosphere and vibe that transcend language or rational thought. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is one of those albums. A Brazilian singer-songwriter who boasts a commanding, supple vocal style, Nascimento has collaborated with many prominent American and English musicians (Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Cat Stevens, and, uh, Duran Duran), yet his own records aren’t that well known here. But among the record-collector cognoscenti, he’s revered as something of a prog-folk-soul genius. You could think of Nascimento as something of a South American Tim Buckley, but even that doesn’t quite nail his special talent.
My Brazilian import copy of Minas contains scant info about the recording, but maybe not knowing every detail of it somehow enhances the listening experience. Savor the mystery! Milton sings in Portuguese, a wonderfully musical language that has a warm, tranquilizing effect on me. He enlists a children’s choir on a couple of tracks, which is one of my least favorite ploys, but for some reason it’s not as cloying as usual in Nascimento’s hands. Much of Minas is deceptively beautiful; most of the songs here don’t immediately stun you, but rather over repeat listens their oddly alluring contours begin to make sense and trigger your pleasure centers. By the fifth listen, you’re convinced Minas is a classic song cycle as devastatingly moving as Buckley’s Starsailor, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or any of Scott Walker’s first four solo joints.
Minas‘ highlight is “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada” (which Royal Trux, of all people, reverently and authoritatively covered; look for it on their box set Singles, Live, Unreleased). Co-written with Ronaldo Bastos, this song finds Milton trading unbelievably expressive vocals with Beto Guedes as the music flares and lopes with balletic grace and soulful buoyancy, like some superhuman strain of tropical pop whose rewards will never cease. I’ve no idea what they’re singing, but the vocalists convey powerful uplift, and that lump in my throat is real. Someone at the usually trustworthy Dusty Groove site noted about Minas that “the backings have a positive, triumphant quality that’s extremely upbeat and bright, yet without sounding commercial at all.” This is accurate. Nascimento and his cohorts gently unleash a new kind of beauty on us here and we should all devote a good chunk of the rest of our lives to luxuriating in it—language barrier be damned. -Buckley Mayfield
Here’s a stone-classic album that’s still not widely known enough—even with its uplifting funk track “Bra” being sampled by De La Soul on “Change In Speak” from 3 Feet High & Rising and appearing in Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn. (Hip-hop and electronic-music producers have sampled Cymande at least 77 times, according to who-sampled.com.) Cymande put out three strong albums (I’ve not heard their fourth, Arrival), but their debut is the best, if only judging by how often I play tracks from it in DJ sets. It’s one of those rare funk full-lengths that you can play from start to finish without lifting the needle off a tepid ballad.
But to call Cymande merely a funk band is inadequate. The English nonet—who featured musicians from London, St. Vincent, Guyana, and Jamaica—also incorporated jazz, reggae, calypso, and progressive rock in their inspirational tracks, and such hybridization resulted in highly flavorful material that is bathed in a spiritual glow that can’t be faked. Cymande call it “nyah-rock,” which they describe in the liners as “the music of the man who finds in life a reason for living.” I’ll say.
Side 1 is largely mellow and meditative and marked by Patrick Patterson’s fluid guitar ruminations, Steve Scipio’s lithe bass lines, Mike Rose’s circuitous flute motifs, and Ray King’s soulful vocals that carry subtle hints of Caribbean patois. LP opener “Zion I” is the exception: a spiritual reggae tune with righteous massed vocals and a bass line on which you can trampoline.
Side 2 is where Cymande really shines. “Dove” (sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan in “Problems” and the Fugees in “The Score,” among many other places) is simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever waxed. It begins in great intrigue, Patrick Patterson’s guitar modulating a Santana-esque wail, setting the scene for Steve Scipio’s world-beating, sidewinder bass line to lift the track onto a higher, more libidinous level. Stealthy, undulant funk beats and blissed-out “la la la la-la”s contribute to making the 11-minute “Dove” one of the ultimate sex jams. The aforementioned “Bra” is simply one of the most joyous pieces of music ever waxed. The next time you’re really down, play it and feel your worries dissolve amid its levitational rhythms, percolating congas and bongos, and triumphant horn charts. “The Message” is more subdued, but no less seductive with its nocturnal funk strut. “Ras Tafarian Folk Song” is definitely the album’s weak link, but that could just be my bias against religious belief systems talking. Thankfully, it’s over in three minutes. Everything else on Cymande, though, deserves to be blazed into your memory banks till your last breath—especially “Dove.” -Buckley Mayfield
With Spacecraft member John Livengood’s name flung back into consciousness with the Record Store Day vinyl reissue of his and Richard Pinhas’ super-nice 1994 space-rock/ambient album Cyborg Sally, it seems like an opportune time to review Spacecraft’s Paradoxe. Keyboardist Livengood (Red Noise) and guitarist/bassist Ivan Coaquette (Delired Cameleon Family, Musica Elettronica Viva) recorded this deeply underground psych-prog classic in the mid ’70s, and it’s a serious head-bonk. (Spalax reissued it on CD in 1995 with an utterly hypnotic bonus track from 1973, the spaced-out epic “Pays De Glace”; Wah Wah put out a much-needed vinyl edition in 2012.)
One listen to Paradoxe and you wonder why it didn’t make it onto the fabled Nurse With Wound List; perhaps it was too obscure even for Steven Stapleton and company. From the first seconds of the first track, “Lumiere De Lune,” you feel as if you’ve been transported into a much weirder and more interesting sphere, as Spacecraft swathe you in a silvery miasma of interstellar synth and guitar emissions, making gravity seem like an absurd joke. “Cosmic Wheel” really ratchets up the sense of tingling disorientation and intensifies the immersion into alien frequencies. Your DMT trip would be very disconcerting if this were soundtracking it. The synthetic solar winds and chattering guitar pointillism rushing through “Chromatique One’s” sounds like the sort of brain-bending 22nd-century astral jazz that would make Sun Ra squeal with joy.
The cruise-control, star-trekkin’ “Harabizant” could be a higher-altitude Harmonia, while “Surface” writhes and arpeggiates like near-peak Heldon and Lard Free, fellow French explorers of deep space rock and far-out fusion. Coaquette’s guitar solo in the coda is heart-tremblingly gorgeous. Yet for all its sonic treasures, Paradoxe remains largely overlooked. If you’re at all into challenging, instrumental electronic rock, you owe it to yourself to track down this profoundly hallucinogenic zoner. -Buckley Mayfield
There’s an original copy of Relatively Clean Rivers’ first and only LP on the wall at a Portland record store that’ll cost you $800 (not a typo). It’s been sitting there for at least four or five years… although after this review goes live, probably for not much longer. Why the absurdly high price? I mean, Relatively Clean Rivers is a great record, but is it $800 great? Is any record worth that much? Maybe I’m not the best person to ask, as the most I’ve paid for a single album is $60. But enough about record-collector economics…
The brainchild of Orange County guitarist/vocalist/bassist Phil Pearlman (he also plays flute, “sahz,” harmonica, and synthesizer and is responsible for those crucial psych-rock opuses by Electronic Hole and Beat Of The Earth; his son was also a member of Al Qaeda, but don’t let that distract you from the sonic beauty at hand), Relatively Clean Rivers is a perfect combination of the Grateful Dead at their most concise and mellowest and Popol Vuh at their most accessible, e.g., Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächt. And if you love the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” it’s pretty certain you’ll dig Relatively Clean Rivers.
This music sounds like the archetypal output of stoned-to-the-bone American hippies in the summer of 1969: bathed in a golden glow of gentle acoustic and electric guitar ramble and choogle, bursting with yearning melodies that twang your heart strings with utmost delicacy, and topped with Pearlman’s peace-mongering lyrics (“Hoping we an all get together, the Arabs and the Jews/And melt down weapons into water sprinklers”) and just-soulful-enough, Garcia-soft vocals. Every song’s a blessed wallow in laid-back melodiousness, with just enough rhythmic oomph to get your hips swaying and your upper lip sweating. Front to back, RCR keeps your manageable high at a sensible hum. It sounds best at sundown by the water with your tightest homies (especially “Hello Sunshine”), but these songs can elevate your mood wherever and whenever you happen to be.
In actuality, Relatively Clean Rivers is so great, I can’t fully trust anyone who doesn’t love it like Donald Trump loves attention. But I still wouldn’t pay 800 freakin’ US dollars for it. So thank you, Phoenix Records, for the reasonably priced reissue. -Buckley Mayfield
By this point in Soft Machine’s history, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt was long gone and the Dadaist art pop of the first two LPs had vanished in a thick cloud of jazz-fusion smoke. But it would be a mistake to ignore Soft Machine’s post-Wyatt output. While many praise Third as the group’s peak after sweet Bobby W. left, I’m partial to Six—and it’s mainly because of two epic tracks: “The Soft Weed Factor” (John Barth allusion noted) and “Chloe And The Pirates.” I’ll explain why shortly. But first, it’s important to say that Six consists of one live LP and one studio record. The latter is where the best tracks lie.
Don’t get me wrong—the 11 live songs here are quite good. Whenever you have musicians the caliber of Hugh Hopper (bass), Mike Ratledge (keyboards, celeste), John Marshall (drums, percussion), and former Nucleus member Karl Jenkins (oboe, saxes, pianos), you’re going to get smart, complex, timbrally interesting compositions. Ratledge and Jenkins dominate the songwriting, and their PhD-level prog and jazz chops keep your neurons on their proverbial toes (clunky metaphor alert), as you try to figure out their crazy time signatures. The highlight of the concert recordings may be “Lefty,” which sounds like Miles Davis in At Filmore/Live-Evil/Big Fun mode—surprising and explosive.
Now about those two standouts mentioned in the first paragraph. Jenkins’ 11-minute “Soft Weed Factor” is a patiently unspooling piece featuring Jenkins and Ratledge’s intertwining keyboards, a helix of slow-motion, Terry Riley-esque hypnosis. When the methodical funk beats, sinuous bass line, and sax come in, it sounds like Miles and his In A Silent Way band have infiltrated the studio. Chills ensue. It would be okay if this were three times longer. Ratledge’s “Chloe And The Pirates” begins with a spacey electric-piano-dominated fantasia not unlike the intro to Deodato’s “Thus Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” before gradually shifting into a showcase for Jenkins’ beautiful oboe arabesques. He kind of puts Andy Mackay’s part in Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” to shame. Six ends on a very weird note, with Hopper’s “1983” evoking a spinal-fluid-chilling horror-soundtrack vibe with chthonic piano and percussion whose spooked-wind-chime timbres I’ve never heard anywhere else. (If they haven’t already, Demdike Stare really should sample this.) Here’s to world-class studio trickery… -Buckley Mayfield
Deep cuts! Hardly known at the time outside of the U.K (and beat to the punch by Sabbath and Savoy in their own country), Budgie were heavy and hard, furthering forms adopted by metallers and rockers anywhere from Iron Maiden to Black Flag.
Comparisons are also drawn to the progressive tendencies of Rush, but I hear more vocal work akin to Geddy than anything else at this point in their trajectory. “Squawk” is more of a solid hard rock slab, a bit cleaner than Blue Cheer, but more straight ahead, a real stoked engine. Also hear some Savoy Brown… Chimes appear hear and there, keyboards on occasion, and acoustic numbers seem to be overlooked in other write-ups.
Anyway, seeing a Budgie album will guarantee a good time if you enjoy Heavy Rock, roots in Metal or the first to second wave of British Blues. Riff, chug chug, riff chug chug… Heavy three pieces can’t be beat, you know? Check out “Hot As A Docker’s Armpit” for more. -Wade
British music scribe Simon Reynolds, a champion of arty underground music from the late 70’s/early 80’s, had a bit of a fascination with the popular Kate Bush. Mostly with how she triumphed as a pop star with so many radical sounding singles. And also, while her work is far-reaching, arty and interesting in the way prog-to-pop folks like Peter Gabriel are in the studio, she gives very little insight into her process, or her inspirations.
In 1980, UK music was full of arty types and the most hip had punk rock credentials in some form or another. Kate Bush is just as arty and modern as The Slits, Wire… yet, no ripped clothes, so little hip factor. And when those groups sound scrambling or angular, Kate’s sound is ornate, meticulously layered and placed in direct opposition. “Never For Ever” is her third full length, the most focused of the bunch and the one that further secured her place in pop culture after a string of leftfield-hits like “Wuthering Heights” and “Wow.” And it’s another step sideways from conventional pop.
And speaking of hits, the tracks bookending the album are two of her best. “Babooshka” is a classic that chronicles a wife’s desire to test her husband’s loyalty by taking on the guise of a younger woman… From personally paranoid to worldly heavy, album closer and single “Breathing” is about being born after a nuclear holocaust, which seemed like a very legitimate threat around that time.
Even with such content, Kate is pleasant throughout, with songs ranging from piano ballads to art rock. The darker tone is reminiscent to the glam of UK group Japan. “Never For Ever” is a good one to dive into before further exploring her discography, which is varied and still keeps her a bit of a cypher, despite massive popularity. -Wade
Modern Rock’s possible reality as natural progression post-Hip Hop/Drum and Bass? A product of over-saturated media youth?
Hella fall short of being a traditional rock group by only having two members, but tradition isn’t a relevant factor when the stuff these guys push feels so immediate. Debut album “Hold Your Horse Is” would be as good a place as any to start with their brand of hyper-fast prog rush. An electronic doodle kicks off the album that brings to mind 90’s gaming console sound chips, before the live element crashes through with “Biblical Violence” and from that point never lets up.
To produce the sort of manic nowness of your active day, Hella’s self taught drummer Zach Hill actually uses (in a relative sense) slow punctuated beats… but fills the space between by hitting the skins and cymbals as fast as superhumanly possible, creating a striking sound that’s not start/stop but rather start/gogogogogogo/start et al. While Hill flogs his kit, guitarist Spencer Seim plays spastic melodies, creates strange drones and chips away at you with repetition. And whenever necessary, they make neck-breaking changes. It happens a lot.
As crazed as all this may sound, the overall tone here is not violent or oppressive but rather triumphant, it can be used sonic pick-me-up; like chugging a pot of coffee to get through a heavily scheduled day. Does that help you? “Hold Your Horse Is” is about as focused and concise as their albums get and a solid debut… After this, the duo felt free enough to experiment in more electronic territory and at one point expanded their roster.
This album is near-live instrumental music synced to modern times, man made jams informed by all sorts of media blitzkriegs, and a document that is as good a tool to your life as amphetamine might be, if that’s your drug of choice. -Wade
If you are curious about inspired Motorhead’s unique sound, and have already explored MC5, The Stooges, Hawkwind and The Groundhogs, then go no further than this album. Larry Wallis and Duncan Sanderson later appeared on Motorhead recordings and the song “City Kids”, debuting here, is also featured on Motorhead’s 1979 LP On Parole. “City Kids” here is more stark than Lemmy’s amphetamine-enriched version, but no less powerful. ‘I wish I was a Girl” is a track worthy of the Groundhogs “Split” album in its inventiveness – but the raw power is undiminished. Sure it lacks a little something due to recording techniques in those days – a clear sense of perspective is needed, as this is music of its time and yet way ahead of it. “When’s the Fun Begin” is not one to listen to if you’re verging on a depression, but provides a nice contrast to the driving “Chromium Plating” and “Raceway.” Something about these tracks actually seems to contain the acrid smell and excitement of motor racing in a far less clinical way than say, Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” “Chambermaid” is quirky and may require several listens to pick up on the humour, and “Street Urchin” is the track that leaves you wanting more.
Kings of Oblivion is one of the best-kept secrets of hard rock – and an important part of its history. If you like your rock and roll “real,” it doesn’t get much more real than this. Just don’t go expecting Judas Priest, AC/DC or Black Sabbath; This is high-energy rock that truly belongs on the streets, and a landmark album in its genre. Truly a classic. —Fuuhq