Wire “Behind The Curtain” (1995)

Where haaave you been hiding this, life?! Uhh, Behind The Curtain. Heh heh.

Believe it or not, we had no idea this lil’ corker existed until the other night, when after already extending the gentlemanly gesture of giving us a lift, our buddy lays this one on us for the ride home. Sand In My Joints! Map Ref 41 N 93 W? Underwater Experiences, and a bunch of other songs we’d never heard?!?! Driver, you really know how to talk to a girl.

Behind The Curtain, it turns out, is a collection of demos, live, and, unreleased Wire material from 1977-78 – i.e., songs that would wind up on Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154, a near-flawless triumvirate of albums if ever there was one. Rawer, and even more urgent than their album versions, some of these takes may actually get a leg up on their better-produced counterparts. While some of this stuff has surfaced here and there over the years, there is a lot of material that hasn’t, with 13 tracks unreleased in any form. Even this compilation seems to be in short supply, having only seen release in the UK, and languishing in out-of-print purgatory for years.

Collections like these often serve little purpose beyond the label’s ongoing compulsion to get more product into the market. With Wire though, it’s an essential document (and eyewitness) of a band’s all-too-brief formative stages. Unlike many of their peers, Wire’s progression from the trappings of punk into a bolder, more experimental sound occurred at a staggering clip. It’s mind-boggling to think that this band went from the 1-2-XU, barely-holding-it-together snottiness of the early live tracks here to the stark and nuanced ambient mood pieces of “A Touching Display” in a span of 18 months. Which makes this material all the more crucial. After Pink Flag, one of the more cohesive statements to come out of punk, Wire would tear up the map, never to return for the most part. Behind The Curtain puts this in perspective, connecting the dots for those that care to follow. This is how it started, and how they got to where they were going. —Jonathan

Black Sabbath “Mob Rules” (1981)

Replacing a lead singer is the kiss of death in Metal. As the new singer, you must be comfortable with the knowledge that no matter how hard you wail, how tight your pants are, how BAD-ASS you are, you will never be as good as the first guy. This was the harsh reality Ronnie James Dio stepped into when he joined Black Sabbath upon Ozzy Osbourne’s departure. Even though the band had been running on fumes for some time at the point Dio came on, Ozzy was still an iconic frontman, and the pressure of replacing him might have gotten to a lesser deity. Ronnie may have been a small guy, but he had the swagger and persistence of the Devil himself, and wasted no time proving it on “Heaven and Hell,” which was the band’s best-selling record in years, and it’s even-better follow-up, “Mob Rules”.

Dio changed the dynamic of the band completely, with a style as far removed from Ozzy’s as can be. His vocals were soaring and melodic – a far cry from the Oz-man’s base mono-syllabic chanting. “Mob Rules” also featured another significant line-up change, as it was the first without drummer Bill Ward, who had issues with Dio. I’m as big a Bill fan as they come, but listening to this record, it’s Vinny Appice who inarguably helps elevate things to the next level. Bill Ward’s primitive swing was one of the trademarks of the Sabbath sound, and his successor is wise enough not to toy with this foundation. Appice has the edge though when it comes to pure chops; he’s just got more tools in his box than Ward, and the added technical prowess opens up new dark corridors for the band. You get the feeling that Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler had been waiting to flex like this for awhile, and the inventiveness of the riffs and arrangements on this record reflect the re-newed hunger of a band reborn, while laying the groundwork for the more technical, anthemic groups that would come to epitomize Metal in the ’80′s and beyond. —Jon Treneff

The Blue Orchids “The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain)” (1982)

One of the more baffling oversights in the mad rampage to re-examine every last corridor of post-punk continues to be The Blue Orchids. Martin Bramah and Una Baines were founding members of The Fall, and early casualties of Mark E. Smith’s revolving-door policy. Upon their unceremonious sacking, they wasted no time putting together a new group and signing a deal with Rough Trade. There are undeniable echoes of their former band here – Una brings her trademark single-note, chinsy-keyboard melodies to the table, and Bramah has a dry, sung-spoken vocal delivery not entirely unlike that of M.E.S. From here, the Orchids struck out on their own, crafting a sound that retained some of the nervous energy and bite of The Fall while being an altogether more melodically evolved and cerebral affair.

Like The Clean and their New Zealand counterparts of the day, the Orchids were attempting to re-animate the corpse of psychedelia with a punk sensibility. While the notion seems almost quaint today, it was a fairly audacious move in the “death to hippies” climate of U.K punk. To wit, Bramah’s wry, deadpan vocals and chiming guitar lines manage to pick up on the post-Velvets art-school damage that Television and their more adventurous NYC contemporaries were forwarding. The Orchids were among the first of their scene to make a clear break with the tunnel-vision strictures of punk, with thinly-veiled drug references and honest-to-goodness “hooks”. While fellow travelers like The Soft Boys, Felt, and Josef K have all gradually re-entered the musical discussion, The Blue Orchids remain something of an “off-shoot band” footnote. All of “Money Mountain,” their debut full-length, is gripping and inventive, but one listen to “A Bad Education” should be enough to convince anyone that the Orchids were a unique entity unto themselves, and forerunners of an eccentric strain of slacker-jangle that persists in indie music to this day. —Jon Treneff

Re-examinin’ Jammin:
A Guide for the Reggae Reluctant

What is it about Reggae that inspires such polarized reactions? Scores of those who are otherwise musically well-versed and open-minded will register tangible expressions of apprehension when the irie sounds of Jamaica are mentioned. Reggae is a line in the sand for a lot of people, but I suspect that, as was the case for me, a lot of people have simply never had the right entry point – something beyond the ganja-huffing roommate who blasted Bob Marley’s “Legend” from dusk to dawn. Like the music of The Grateful Dead (read our guide), Reggae comes with a lot of baggage. Negative cultural associations abound, and the fact that at it’s root, it is a basically repetitive music sung in patois doesn’t exactly woo new listeners. Not to mention the sheer, daunting amount of recorded music out there.

In hopes of remedying this, we’ve put together a guide for the Reggae-wary. Contrary to simply being a list of “user-friendly” Reggae, these records all hopefully offer something slightly removed from the general expectations and stereotypes many of us have formed around Reggae music.

Gregory Isaacs Night Nurse (1982). Gregory is a good gateway for people who don’t technically have a problem with Bob Marley, but are soured by the over-saturation of his image/music in popular culture. Gregory “The Cool Ruler” was blessed with pipes every bit as strong and expressive as Marley’s, with a natural gift for melody, and a voice smooth and sweet enough to buff out the scratches on your Minibus. Mr. Isaacs was pre-occupied with the fairer sex as much as themes of roots and culture, so it’s not all ganja anthems and Hail Selassie (although there is some of that). Much of his material revolves around classic lover’s themes, the bedrock of all pop music, and a potential lifeline for those looking for a little tunefulness and romance with their Reggae.

Rhythm & Sound With The Artists (Compilation, 2003). Rhythm & Sound are Berliners who got their start in the ’90′s making minimal, dubby Techno under the quietly influential Basic Channel moniker. Their Rhythm & Sound project surgically removes the 4/4 spine from their productions, swapping it out for Reggae’s ubiquitous backbeat, and stripping the music down to it’s barest essentials, leaving only the slightest suggestion of Reggae’s pulsating undercurrent. With The Artists sees them voicing their tracks with Reggae legends like the Love Joys and Cornel Campbell, effectively forging a bridge from Reggae’s past to it’s potential future. The results are a spectral, midnight burial dub that sounds unlike anything else in the body of Reggae or Electronic music.

Keith Hudson Flesh Of My Skin: Blood Of My Blood (1975). One of the more interesting and idiosyncratic figures in the genre’s history, Hudson was a former dentist who became something of a Reggae renaissance man – producing, playing, and singing in numerous iterations. In 1974 he released Flesh Of My Skin, Blood Of My Blood – one of the first deliberately conceived “albums” (i.e., not a collection of singles, etc) in Reggae history, and a concept album to boot. Known as the “Dark Prince Of Reggae,” Hudson had a raspy, off-pitch delivery, which works perfectly with the spooky, fog-cloaked production of this otherworldly work that occasionally recalls what Dr. John’s “Gris-Gris” would have sounded like if he’d been Jamaican, not just Creole. A landmark album that still sounds way ahead of it’s time today.

Augustus Pablo East Of The River Nile (1977). In my experience, the music of Augustus Pablo has proven to be a soothing balm to the ear of many a Reggae-dissonant. Something about the sound of the melodica, Pablo’s trademark instrument, succeeds in enchanting the wary listener into blissful submission. The alien sound of the melodica (an instrument not often heard in Reggae, or music period) floats over the mix like vapor, carrying the intrigue of the unfamiliar while triggering a faint nostalgia for Morricone-soundtracked Westerns. Pablo is best-known for his late-seventies melodica records, but was also a multi-talented musician and producer, playing on barrels of classic sessions and continuing to produce innovative work through the ’90′s. Pressure Sounds recently released a selection of his digital-era recordings, which comes highly recommended to anyone looking to delve deeper into his maverick vision.

Dadawah Peace And Love (1974). Dadawah’s “Peace And Love” is the crowning achievement of one Ras Michael, an artist who has released numerous recordings under the latter handle. Michael concentrates on the nyabinghi strain of Reggae – traditional Rastafarian spiritual music, roughly equivalent to Mississippi hill country Blues in it’s rawness and purity of vision. The unique sound of the Dadawah record arises from a stripped-down rhythmic core of hand-drum and bass, eschewing the standard drum kit and rhythm-guitar backbeat of Reggae. When guitar does creep into the mix, it’s in the form of improvised, bluesy interjections, never settling on a fixed melody or pattern. The album consists of four slow-building, hazed-out songs, often running into the 10-12 minute mark – all of it soaking in a vat of reverb. A deeply expansive and singular record that will melt the mind of anyone into Psychedelia, Krautrock, Primitive Blues, or even Spiritual Jazz.

Further listening: UK producer/musician/mover and shaker, Adrian Sherwood has been instrumental in breaking down the musical, social, and cultural barriers that have traditionally made Reggae such an insular concern. He founded the On-U Sound label in the ’80′s, initiating a flurry of releases by acts that pushed the core sounds and concerns of Reggae into new tributaries and uncharted territory. Singers & Players was a collective (featuring revered names in Reggae like Prince Far-I and Bim Sherman) who successfully cut the traditional Reggae template with eclectic flourishes and innovative production techniques influenced by Electronica and Industrial music. Dub Syndicate, meanwhile, serves as Sherwood’s love-letter to the Dubbing tradition. While remaining essentially modern and explorative, it’s also the most openly reverent concern of the On-U stable. In terms of pure aural experience, African Head Charge is easily the most experimental and out-there of the lot – and the furthest from traditional Reggae. The project of percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, AFC is a serious next-level stew that incorporates elements of everything from nyabinghi, psychedelia, and the sampladelic nature of musique-concrete to create one of the most compelling listening experiences a curious ear could hope for. These groups are just a cursory dip into the deep well of talent nurtured by On-U Sound over the years, exploding Reggae’s one-dimensional stereotypes into a thousand new possibilities.

Like every genre, Reggae is a near-bottomless pit once you’ve taken the leap, full of enough curiosities and permutations to keep one busy for a couple of lifetimes. The aforementioned are only a fraction of potential entry points. If you’re willing to cast aside your assumptions and approach it with an open mind, you may find something you didn’t know you were looking for, and be pleasantly surprised by what you find. —Jon Treneff

Love “Four Sail” (1969)

When people talk about Arthur Lee and Love, it’s generally not Four Sail they’re talking about. A pity – because this album is just as crucial as the first three “classic-lineup” records – albeit for slightly different reasons. Some would argue that Love lost much of the magic that initially drew listeners in after the career-defining Forever Changes – that Lee had nothing left to say and nowhere to go. An understandable stance, in light of his already significant achievements, but simply not true.

Four Sail features a completely re-tooled lineup – with a more muscular power trio augmenting Lee’s still ornate songwriting sensibilities. While the new band works squarely in the zone of the changing times (post-Hendrix acid-blues virtuosity), there are more than enough of Lee’s trademark flamenco guitar lines and intuitive songwriting twists and turns to mark this as something that could only be a Love album. Frankly, it’s exciting to hear his singular instincts applied to a new model, and to their credit, the band run with it, sounding vital and electric, re-animating some of the scrappy garage-band energy that made “Seven And Seven Is” so invigorating. Incredibly, Lee’s fragile humanism still manages to cut through the din, scaling new emotional heights in songs like “Robert Montgomery” and “Always See Your Face.” One of the things that set Love apart, and that remains undissipated here, was Lee’s fearlessness in laying his heart and soul out for the crushing, conveying the joy and terror of the human experience in ways that few dared, or would have had the eloquence to articulate. Things would go downhill pretty quickly for Lee after this, but Four Sail remains the defiant last stand of a formidable creative mind, still capable of flipping the script and brokering triumph out of dissolution. —Jon Treneff