Rock

Iron Butterfly “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (Atco, 1968)

In-A-Gadda-Da-VidaIron – Symbolic of something “heavy,” as in sound.

Butterfly – Light, appealing and versatile… an object that can be used freely in the imagination.

On the back of their LP sleeve is this statement, and it’s fitting for a group that shows their varying chops on either side. Their particular brand of psychedelic rock on side one works, but it does seem to allude that a change in style was coming. Erik Brann’s vocals are deep and don’t really bring flowers to mind, even during the groups more flourishing numbers. Organ sounds rip holes through the mix and give a slight ominous tone to everything. Late bassist Philip Taylor Kramer (mysteriously found dead in a car at the bottom of a ravine) gave a warm tone that brings Grand Funk to mind. (EDIT: Kramer joined after the recording of I-A-G-D-V, but was most know for it in performance.)

Side one has moments of beauty with “My Mirage” and “Termination” but it’s the all-encompassing title track that really gives Iron Butterfly their claim to fame. A heavy opening with an unforgettable riff, it later turns into a psychedelic wind tunnel of driving instrumentals; guitar, drum, bass and organ-led mayhem to serenity. Along with Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly are one of those groups that show interesting tangents from garage and psych to the world of heavy. -Wade

The Descendents “Milo Goes To College” (New Alliance, 1982)

SST142_thumbNo other punk band to my knowledge has had their style emulated by hordes of lesser groups than The Descendents. But who could blame those groups for trying? Once they chugged a pot of coffee and played out this great molding of melody and speed set with “Milo Goes To College,” they probably didn’t have a choice…

Hearing their “Ride The Wild / Hectic World” single and jumping into this album can be startling. A capable rock band before, once they brandished new vocalist Milo and went hardcore they were just too damn good to be entry level punk hop-ons… They led the pack. And Milo was their ace in the hole, a wholly new style of rock vocalist; one that wasn’t concerned with having sex, scoring drugs or looking cool. And he rains fire on those that do, severing many a rock cliché. “I’m Not A Loser,” “Tony Age,” “Hope,” “Marriage” and “Bikeage” show that this group is 1) a powerhouse instrumentally and 2) ready to wreck the glamorized foundations of rock culture, with their own raw power.

Most songs don’t make it to the two-minute mark but each one has so many great changes and twists that none are alike, and each one has meat on it. Many of the subjects covered from rent to girls to love to fashion to drugs are standard pop punk material now, but The Descendents crammed it all in to this one, heavy, positive tumult. Play often and you’ll feel better, really. -Wade

The Rolling Stones “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones, 1980)

51H8tGhuOkL._SY300_Along with The Who pulling an “Eminence Front,” the Stones made some undeniably catchy tracks for more straight-ahead dancing. “Emotional Rescue” is the most blatant album example of this, and if you aren’t such a rock purist, it’ll sound pretty good to hear them put four on the floor in their opening tracks.

It’s all still The Stones though, even with their great chicken scratch rhythms and drum patterns squared off for tracks like “Dance” and “Send It To Me.” With less solos and almost no psychedelic intrusion, they still come off as an organic group, not sterile studio sessioners making a few bucks from Studio 54. Not all of the numbers are for the dance floor obviously, but then again “Indian Girl” doesn’t really scream for repeated listens the way their tackling of dance tunes do.

For Stones devotees, “Emotional Rescue” isn’t too bad to see them moving further sideways after the “Some Girls” punk reaction, into dance territory… and they avoid rubbing shoulders too much (ahem, title track) with white-soul New Wave, which is a blessing here. “Down In The Hole” helps confirm that they were exploring, and not drifting too far from their roots. -Wade

Tim Buckley “Greetings From L.A.” (Straight, 1972)

51jJnF-3yOLTim Buckley’s seventh album effort left quite an impression on me after I heard it’s centerpiece “Sweet Surrender” on the Johnny Rotten Capital Radio show from 1977. The whole show was great, mixing Celtic folk songs into Dub into Soul into Progressive Rock, Velvet Underground-affiliated solo projects, Beefheart, Can even… What a way to get hip quick!

But “Sweet Surrender” was the opener for his show as well, and it was the track that lingered longest in my head. So before exploring Buckley’s complete discography I jumped straight into “Greetings From L.A.” and I still think it’s his personal best. After albums of straight folk gave way to albums of avant-garde instrumentation and aural experiments using his impressive vocal range, he did an about face and moved back into a more conventional form; this time closer to Funk, Rock and Soul.

Buckley’s band is groove oriented whether quiet or busy, and in places they employ lush strings that fly as high as his voice can carry. He was not a limited singer. Actually, all that time making avant-recordings helped develop his voice as instrument approach, and when he belts out numbers like “Move With Me” or “Devil Eyes” he can really imitate those dirty bedroom yelps perfectly… No one saw this coming in his career arc, Buckley party music, but then again by the time he made it to this album he may have figured his audience wasn’t getting any bigger. Might as well have some fun, and it’s the most fun you’ll have listening to Tim. Try this one first. -Wade

The Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Columbia, 1965)

MI0000506004The debut album by The Byrds charged forward with that jangly guitar sound, tambourines (of course) and woven harmonies that would become the template for many a folk or heartland rock band. Guitars are intricate with vocals complexly joined, bringing roots to rock format without substantial loss of the prior form.

Whether folkies see their rock and folk union as a watering down of tradition is another matter; as a rock exploration it opened doors. Their work of co-opting Dylan songs may have even helped lead Dylan to pick up an electric guitar, to most of his fans chagrin. But that’s just theorizing, since the only real connection is that this album and his infamous amplified set share the same year in history.

The album itself is in fine stereo presentation, and it sounds pretty close to a document as you’ll get from them before psychedelics and acid rock lead to more adventurous work in a studio vein. You can almost hear it coming in retrospect but with this album you have the best performance culminations of the Beatles and Dylan, with care given to the humble forms they lift up into rock celebrity. -Wade

10cc “Deceptive Bends” (Mercury, 1977)

10cc-Deceptive-Bends-427028I could hardly tell that half the band left by the time 10cc (or, 5cc) started work on “Deceptive Bends.” A studio band that worked the angle quite well already, this time around they were only a two-piece. Consider the opener, “Good Morning Judge”… it’s pretty much a companion piece to their earlier “Rubber Bullets” and shows that they weren’t suffering from their crumbling line-up in terms of production.

But then again, they open with some of their strongest single releases. It’s not a bad thing but most of their best work is right out of the gate. “The Things We Do For Love” comes in at track two and it’s an infinitely playable single. Try it! After that however, they go into their own studio-slow jams until they reach the art-rock of “Modern Man Blues,” all blues licks and synthy tones, but the blues still seem pretty work-and-woman oriented. Tongue in cheek I’m sure.

Side two opens with all the quirk you’d want from the remaining duo; it’s post-Sparks and pre-Devo. “Honeymoon With B-Troop,” with that righteous sanitized guitar, gets weird with playful piano propulsion and stereophonic use of panned vocals. Even with only two original members, “Deceptive Bends” is proof that 10cc could dish out singles and make a mostly memorable step forward on record. -Wade

Black Flag “Damaged” (SST, 1981)

Black_Flag_-_Damaged_coverHow many members burned through Black Flag’s stay on earth? The answer is seventeen in their initial run, which lasted about a decade. Primary songwriter and guitar hero Greg Ginn was the sole lynchpin holding it all together, and as tough a band leader as he was, he wouldn’t outright fire people if they couldn’t meet his vision. Instead they would fall off from exhaustion.

By the time Henry Rollins got on board, they had the hardened vocalist they needed. “Damaged” had been attempted in small stages before, and finally came together in ’81 to change the face of rock and punk forever. The production is a bit muddy but the songs blast through efficiently… And what “punk” songs these are with their tight interplay, tempo changes made on a dime and heavy, Sabbath-heritable interludes with expressive and new noise-to-blues guitar flaying.

Side one has the most recognizable favorites; the opening anthem of “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” “TV Party…” most of the tracks are narrated by damaged characters through Rollins, whether they are abusive macho types, alcoholics, or those pained by them, cops, or existence itself. Though Rollins is channeling these stories written mostly by Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski, he does let loose on side two’s grinding closer “Damaged I,” which he was known to improvise in performance.

But the whole disc is a document that spells the beginning of the end for Rock-as-Field Recording. It’s real, raw as in legitimately raw, and they didn’t take years in a studio assembling it together. Neither would their contemporaries. They kept slugging it out for another half-decade, got heavier, and you about know where Rock picks up from there, Seattleites. -Wade

James “Blood” Ulmer “Free Lancing” (Columbia, 1981)

303362After releasing his solo work “Are You Glad To Be In America?” through Rough Trade instead of say, ECM, the direction of his work grew more technical but remained engaging after his jump to Columbia. And he didn’t lose what he had going on with the post-punk label: innovation and a feeling of warmth throughout despite his unique brand of guitar flaying.

If you see live clips of Chick Corea in 1986 with his “Elektric” band, or other fusion bands of that time headed by Miles, and your only major turn off is the electric keyboards sounding like the audio equivalent of stale cheese, then “Free Lancing” will work for you. Ulmer’s band is electric, but it operates how a crack jazz/funk/rock outfit should. The heavy bass pops and acts as the main rhythmic component, James sings over his precise scratching and scrambling, and the drums embellish when they don’t drive the most memorable track, “High Time,” to the conclusion of the first side.

Loved by Ornette, post-punk art schoolers, rock enthusiasts and fans of Hendrix’s cross-town traffic music in general… well let’s put it this way, the material you hear on “Free Lancing” was the same stuff they would flaunt in front of Captain Beefheart and PiL. You can consider it a treasure of the era that occupies it’s own space. -Wade

Spirit “Clear” (Ode, 1969)

220px-Spirit_-_Clear-2The original Spirit lineup was the sleeper band of its era, maybe the top LA band from the ’68-’72 span. Their first and fourth albums are acclaimed classics by just about everybody, but this disc is IMHO as good as them. While the roots of jazz rock taken further by Steely Dan’s “Bodhisatva” could be heard on their third album’s “All the Same” this disc has three jazz explorations, with “Ice” and “Caught” being superb instrumental, improvisational tracks.

The Hendrix vibe of the earlier discs is just as evident in “Dark Eyed Woman”, and “So Little Time to Fly” and “Ground Hog” show early signs of the evolving sound that stuck to many on “Dr Sardonicus.” The only stiff on this disc is “Give a Life, Take a Life,” but the bonus tracks on this release more than make up for it: both sides of the “1984” single and several jazzy instrumentals, including a great track called “Eventide” that recalls “Caught.”

Top it all off with maybe the best non-single track on any Spirit disc, “New Dope in Town,” and this is the record that doesn’t get respect it should as a classic disc from a classic band. -Frank

Nation of Ulysses “13-Point Program to Destroy America” (Dischord, 1991)

nationof.13point.hiSelf-aware and theatrically coming off as far-left wing nutcases, Nation of Ulysses was a short lived band that burned brightly for the Dischord label into the 90s. Ian Svenonius, as ringleader and intense frontman, comes across as just that on recordings set to match their legendary and ecstatic live performances.

“13-Point Program To Destroy America” is, at it’s core, made up of a belief system stemming from juvenile delinquent behavior and leftist radicalism, but the mashing of these views is comedic and not overly serious, except maybe in their instrumentation. Their roots are in D.C. Hardcore, but at the turn of the decade most groups in the area had become more harmonic… Nation did this, but listening to a heap of free jazz records might have also led them down more interesting avenues. Svenonius even picked up a trumpet on some tracks. Whether he plays like a jazz man is up for, uh, debate. I’d say not, but he’s a great noisemaker.

The album is really two minute blasts most of the way through (“Spectra Sonic Sound,” Ulythium”), with some slower numbers including the mocking “Diphtheria.” It’s a song against, of all things, eating sweets, which really shows straightedge ethics held up to ridiculously high standards. This was when kids in the scene were going so far as refraining from caffeine consumption… It was time for a laugh. -Wade

Bad Company “Straight Shooter” (Island, 1974)

Straight_shooterBad Company! Their second album from 1975 must have been one of last few kicks of hard rock worth hearing before Punk prompted a reboot on the unending rock culture most record companies contributed to. Bad Company were one of those groups that signed to play stadiums, but luckily they could deliver arena rock goodness with a gifted rhythm section and the emerging “supergroup” status.

Make that a rhythm section with members of Free and King Crimson, plus the management backing and brawn of Led Zep. So there really was no way they could miss during the age of mid-70’s rock. And once “Straight Shooter” arrived, they had their hits fleshed out too; especially on rock radio staples “Shooting Star” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Side two also has that coveted “incendiary” guitar work on “Deal With The Preacher.”

“Straight Shooter” is actually pretty light on guitar solo’s and instead weaves six strings through the rhythms on most of the tunes. The mix is clean (not sanitized) and democratic, with guitar heroics set to swing, making this an album to slide next to your ZZ Top collection. But you can probably find this one easier than “Tres Hombres” in a discount bin… Good deal! -Wade

Fugazi “Red Medicine” (Dischord, 1995)

090-webHearing “13 Songs” today and identifying it as a punk milestone isn’t too hard. But when it was released reception was a bit different, even to the ears of folks dedicated to Dischord. Joe Lally’s dubby basslines probably had something to do with it.

After further experiments with dub production on sharp rhythms (courtesy of ex-Rites of Spring members), Fugazi took an artier route on “Red Medicine” that rocks most of the time and power-plays the studio for stints and segues. Early straightforward blaster “Bed For The Scraping” is a fun bass-propelled track that’s hard, aggressive and danceable. It’s probably the most uplifting rock track they got. Then on the production side of things, instrumentals arranged behind a board like “Combination Lock” or “Version” further push musical ideas. The trick pulled here is that these songs sound fine right alongside their rock numbers.

What makes this piece worthy of placing next to “13 Songs” or “Repeater?” It’s another fully realized album, for one, and while more musical ideas are explored Fugazi never spread themselves to thin. And while the members of this esteemed group share morals and standards set staggering high, lyrically you’ll catch a break. The album is chock full of personal political points, but delivery here is generally less declaratory, more obtuse except where it sounds great (Lockheed! Lockheed!).

On “Red Medicine,” Fugazi are miles away from where they started, with bars set even higher on playing, producing, boundary pushing… -Wade